The use of the term ‘disabled’ is complex and disputed.
In the UK the term ‘disabled people’ is preferred to ‘people with disabilities’. Disabled people can wear it with pride. It is used as a badge of identity and, if it refers to anything, it refers to the prejudice or obstacles that confront some of us because of our impairments or our differences. Disability is not in me – disability is in the social circumstances that make life more difficult for some of us.
Other English-speaking countries take exactly the opposite approach and reject the concept of a disabled person because it seems to imply that in some way our personhood is disabled – as if we were not fully functioning as a person.
For instance, the Canadian philosopher (and woman with a disability) Judith Snow rejects the concept of a disabled person because being unable to do certain things without assistance does not make one disabled. “I cannot get to the moon unaided – but I am not space disabled.” The fact that someone needs more than an average level of assistance in one area of life, where others require less assistance, does not mean that they are any less of a person.
Personhood does not depend on our ability to perform some set of tasks: there’s no ability test for being a person.
As she points out, any distribution of abilities follow the normal curve. For any specific ability there will be some who are very able, some who are less able, while most will be in the middle. There will be those of us who can’t run, those of us who can run very fast indeed and the rest of us who might just manage a jog.
The crucial point here is that the normal curve is normal; it is just the way that inevitable variations in the natural world get distributed. There’s nothing special about it.
But it seems that we struggle to treat these variations and differences as natural. Natural variation gets turned into a kind of weapon. Some are tempted to see themselves as superior, just because they are lucky to have an ability at one end of the curve. Some may start to feel they are inferior, just because they happen to have an ability at the other end of the curve. Some may even glory in just being normal. The normal curve becomes a weapon for oppressing and harming others or even ourselves.
Even worse, the idea of disability may be treated as if it refers to some kind of failed version of a thing. As she notes, we do not really think of a ‘disabled car’ as a particular kind of car, we see it as a failed car – a car that does not work anymore. Applying disability to humans in this way is dangerous nonsense.
Judith Snow does not reject the existence of abilities or disabilities – so long as we understand that this concept is a doubly relative term: relative to a particular human activity and relative to the distribution of that activity. There is nothing bad about these variations in the distribution of capacity – and nothing unfair. It is all just a part of our natural human diversity.
Snow rejects the notion that our human status that can be switched off, or even diminished, by our abilities. We ourselves are not disabled, we cannot be disabled.
However UK perspectives also makes perfect sense. In a world where people use the term ‘disabled’ of people then it makes good sense to say: Okay, that’s me – but if you see a problem the problem is in you – not me.
But it also makes sense to say that you can’t apply the term ‘disabled’ to people – its bad grammar.
Both agree that the adjective ‘disabled’ does not really qualify the noun ‘person’ – but each chooses to make a different moral point in their response to the fact that some people do use the term as if it does apply to people:
We are a group – we have an identity, which we control and of which we are proud.
I am a person – don’t rule me out, don’t ignore me or degrade me.
Both perspectives are entirely valid. So let’s use them both.