This morning I saw someone indicate that they would never call a person disabled; they use alter-abled instead. I’m going to assume they meant well, and think of disability as a slur or insult. I’d like to explain why this well-intentioned language made me cringe.
Most people who want to use euphemisms for disability like “differently abled are not disabled themselves. They desire to be polite, but don’t know the preferred terms. However, these euphemisms don’t help and often aren’t polite.
I am disabled. That’s not a bad word, even though disability is despised. I’m also a woman, another despised category. Neither “disabled” nor “woman” is a slur, and they are both important to my identity.
“Differently abled” and similar phrases suggest, incorrectly, that disabilities necessarily come with extra abilities. This idea is really common, that disabilities confer benefits. We want to believe that deafness comes with super vision, and that blindness comes with super hearing. Because then things seem fair and just, not like some are privileged and others disadvantaged.
My arthritis doesn’t come with special skills and my IBS confers no benefits. My disabilities, which happen to be autoimmune disorders, are due to purely negative physical impairments and due to the ableist world around me. Other disabilities like autism or OCD may come with upsides, things they can do because of brain differences that most others can’t. Even in these cases, such conditions are disabilities because the world disables such people and because the advantages don’t erase or undo impairment.