Why Language Matters in Conversations about Disability

On this International Day of Disabled People, I would like to address something: language. For disabled people, language is often used as a weapon against us — a tool to keep us infantilised —, even by strangers. I had almost forgotten what this felt like, until yesterday evening, when I went to a Christmas lights display with my family. As we were leaving, I took off my mask and an old woman said: “aw, your nose is so red. You must be so cold, bless you”. She also touched my arm as she was talking, which would be uncomfortable even outside of a pandemic. At the time, I was too surprised to really form much of a sentence, so I just laughed. I mean, this feels like a perfectly innocent interaction, right? Of course, that’s exactly what makes it a problem. First of all, it was cold and I didn’t initially understand why that felt significant enough for her to mention in the first place. Secondly, I also have a skin condition, which only makes any redness more apparent. For future reference: I don’t need you to point it out. I already know. Thanks. The more that I thought about it, though, the wider issues suddenly became very clear to me. The reason that these comments are so socially acceptable is because disabled bodies are public property. Quite the statement, I know. I’m here to write a whole essay on it.

See, she wouldn’t have made this comment if I wasn’t using a wheelchair — and she certainly wouldn’t have touched me. I have spent enough time in public with my non-disabled family members to know this. Naturally, I have other examples, too. When I was in my early teenage years, I got on a bus with my mum and sister. I can’t remember exactly why, but I do know that I was in a bad mood. Once we had settled in, an old man asked my mum if I was her daughter, so she politely nodded. In response, he simply said “she looks so sad”. There was no further comment. I suppose that he didn’t feel the need to justify it, or take note of the fact that my sister had also been in a bad mood, because my very existence is presented as the embodiment of sadness. Following on from this, more than one person has stopped me in the street to say that if they lived my life, they would be in a permanent state of depression. Sometimes when I have been in the middle of lunch with friends. It’s a lot to fight against.

Danielle, the author of this post, is sat in a wheelchair next to four ornaments in the shape of robins. They are lit up in orange. In the picture, you can see that she is wearing a white hat and a blue coat with a fluffy hood. It is red on the inside. She is also wearing glasses and a black mask with flowers on it. She is smiling at the camera, though you can’t tell, because of the mask. In the background, there are some trees and the sun is setting.
I made my dad take this picture of me JUST so that I could share it here, with you. You’re welcome.

It’s not just the general public, either. Professionals, too. My favourite example of this is when I went to get my wheelchair serviced, after complaining that the seat was no longer comfortable. Full disclosure: I do have a very prominent coccyx. Thanks, Dad. When a woman that I had never met before felt it to get an idea of pressure, she loudly said “oh my God” before apologising profusely. As you can imagine, she then left the room for a little while. Her colleague (someone that I have known since childhood) said “please don’t mention that when she gets back, she’s very embarrassed”. I can genuinely laugh now, hence why I feel safe writing about it, but it’s interesting how her feelings were automatically more important than mine. I had to shrink my body insecurities. Make them easier for other people to swallow.

So, what is the message here? Treat disabled people like human beings. Respect boundaries. What a wild concept. Be gentle with the language that you use and don’t be afraid to ask if you’re not sure. Today, I am celebrating the space that I take up in every room. That is not a tragedy.

Happy Birthday, Imogen. Thank-you for teaching me that it’s okay to stop hiding. xxx

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