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What is the Opposite of Disabled?

July 11, 2009

Amandaw, guest-posting on Feministe, asks the question:
What term should we be using to indicate lack of disability?

Obviously, this discussion is of value, because as we begin to confront our priviliege in this area, we have to name it. And there are power in words. Here are some of the considerations in giving these words power to acknowledge privilege.

Not placing any body as “normal”:

karak: I like currently [able-bodied] more than temporarily [able-bodied] because “temporarily” assumes about my life and future health. My existence now is not some amorphous in-between state anymore than someone’s existence in a wheelchair or on anti-psychotic drugs is some amorphous in-between state. It is how I am, and while that might change, and is likely to change, someone doesn’t have the right to drop a clever term to somehow make my ability to function mentally and physically without aid unnatural, unreal, or unusual, just as someone who does need an aid to function is not unnatural, unreal, or unusual.

Recognizing both mental and physical disabilities:

abby jean: i’ve been thinking about this a lot since you first posted it. since my disability is mental, not physical, i think that strongly informs my thinking. i don’t really like the term disabled as that focuses entirely on the lack of abilities associated with my craziness (that’s how i think of it, i’m ok with using that term for myself, would never refer to another that way without their request) and totally elides what i see as bonus abilities, or extra abilities, or enhanced abilities. there are a lot of things i can do with my brain that other people can’t.

i’ve become fond on the terms neurotypical and neuroatypical to describe people without and with craziness. that frames the non-disabled as the “typical” or common rather than the “fully abled” and doesn’t frame the “neuroatypical” as lesser than or lacking. “atypical” is not wholly unpejorative, i realize, but i think infinitely less so than “not fully abled” or “lacking ability.”

Finding a term that people can identify with:

mbh: Two of the tenets I have taken from feminism and gay rights are (1) the more narrowly you are defined by the so-called mainstream, the harder the fight and (2) stereotypes come from the most vocal or visible parts of any group.

With respect to disabilities, I’d like to see language that flips the stereotype. Something that’s inclusive and expansive, along the lines of differently abled. Whatever the language, I don’t see how it can be meaningful unless people come out and identify with the term. In my experience, that’s the only way to truly break a stereotype and why I don’t get agitated around the term “disabled”.

Words are important. Precision of meaning is important. But there comes a point at which linguistic complexity becomes alienating. (I’ve always thought that over-complexity was the impetus behind the backlash against Political Correctness a.k.a. basic verbal courtesy toward someone who wasn’t just like you.) I think it’s a mistake to casually dismiss the need for terms to be comprehensible and relatable by a broad cross-section of the population.

Highligthting the over-privileged, rather than just under-privileged:

anon: while i don’t consider myself disabled, i’m very aware that everyone else considers me as such, and that has impacted every aspect of my life from childhood to education, to relationships, to basic functioning in this society. And yet none of these barriers are inherent but due to how society segments off and treats deaf people.

So it seems to me we are often referring to segments of population that are not merely “undisabled” — they are actually ENabled by the social constructs that are not merely neutral but support their particular conditions.

While I absolutely love the term “Enabled” I’m not prepared to make a decision yet, because more educated people than me are making really good arguments. I encourage you to poke around in the comments on this article to see what else they’re saying. And of course, comment here on what you think!

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