Abled, Disabled, or Differently Abled?

I have to admit, I came into the OT program thinking that I knew the “right” way, the “respectful” way to talk about people with disabilities. I would’ve cringed if I had read or heard the third sentence below; and likely rolled my eyes or fumed inside about inappropriate language.

“Nathan is a 5-year old boy with autism. He attends OT twice a week.”

“Nathan is an autistic boy who attends OT twice a week. He is 5 years old…”

“Nathan is a 5-year old boy who attends OT twice a week. He is differently abled.”

I had learned in one of my classes that person-first language is more respectful to our clients as it allows for the person to be defined by other factors (eg. age, interests, strengths) before being defined by their disability. It made sense. I internalized it. And I took it for granted.

Our professor instilled self-doubt on the first day of classes. She said that she would use person-first language …but that there was a heavy debate on the matter. She also made sure to point out how clients of this class introduced their disability and themselves. Some chose to point out several facts about themselves before bringing up their disability, and others laid out their disability right after their name.

My daughter doesn’t have ‘special’ needs. She’s disabled. This is an eye-opening article written by a mother of child with autism. In brief, the article makes a case for her child’s needs not being “special” at all and rather basic and ordinary. The mother also shares that autism has set her child’s life on a certain trajectory and has become an integral part of the child’s identity.

It seems that we are trending towards euphemisms to replace words we consider ugly…moving from “handicapped” to “disabled” to “with disability” to “differently abled”. But with time, the new words can also become somewhat ugly.

To me, the journey of language and labeling should be personal and transformational. What I mean by this is that before coming to conclusions about how we label people, it’s important to examine our beliefs and internalized understanding of the world.

If I see autism as a problem to be fixed, then the words that I say will convey this message no matter what they are. My tone and how I phrase the situation will reflect this belief.

So what I am proposing is for each of us healthcare professionals to examine our beliefs about the people that we see.  Question always.

My belief is that once we understand where we come from, then we can understand where our clients come from in relation to us. This all promotes use of words that are safe to the individual, to the situation, and authentic to us.

Chamila Anthonypillai
Occupational Therapy Master’s Student

 

This post was written as part of the Design of Assistive Technologies POTH 625D, where students are given the opportunity to write about their course experiences.

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