“Race you down the passage, Chris,” and he was off in his magnificent electric wheelchair, those fabulous blue eyes flashing every which way. He was a handsome devil was Bill, along with possessing a genius-level brain, a photographic memory and a spirit as tall as a Giant Sequoia. Ohh, nearly forgot to mention, he had also been a road accident victim many years before, suffering a broken spine that paralysed him completely from the neck down. Bill was a quadriplegic. He would have been the first to disparage this label, medically accurate as it may be. He needed recognition of the person he was, NOT his medical condition. I understand Bill was not alone in this perfectly understandable desire.
There’s an unhappy history of unfortunate, often cruel, names to describe people who are far more physically challenged than most. I’m most definitely NOT one who demands or even tinily appreciates ‘politically correct’ terminology and names, all too often finding the replacements more offensive than the originals. With improvement of the language used for those with uncommon abilities, an overhaul of the regular verbiage is long overdue.
Hopefully, the most cruel and thoughtless names—crippled, spastic, retarded, etc.—are descriptions from a dark and faraway past. Hopefully! And yet, ‘handicapped’ and ‘disabled’ are taking some losing, being so commonplace. The ugly ‘handicapped’ summons up endless shutter-like pictures with a never-ending flow of the clumsy awkwardness of these people hitting one insurmountable hurdle to so-called ‘normality’, after another. According to one spokesperson, “Disability IS… when your car breaks down, it disables your car. People are NOT disabled,” suggesting the term itself can cause lives to being lived with much greater degrees of restriction, much increased self-doubt and dependency.
I saw an interesting attempt to avoid the word ‘disabled’ at a shopping centre carpark. The easily recognised stick figure in a wheelchair had the word PARKING beneath. Well done, being also clearly understandable to those lacking knowledge of the language. But it struck a funny bone… uhrr, park your wheelchairs there and a miraculous cure will enable you to walk away?? Despite this amusing aside, ‘people with disabilities’ (as they prefer being called) understand and appreciate efforts like these. It’s not really so difficult to imagine how you would want your humanity—your humanness—placed first when you’ve lost so much else; some aspects, maybe forever.
Here are a few preferred terminologies to consider:-
DON’T USE ‘confined to a wheelchair’ or ‘wheelchair-bound’, but
USE ‘wheelchair user’ or ‘uses a wheelchair’.
DON’T USE ‘victim’ or ‘sufferer’—these are dehumanizing and imply powerlessness
USE ‘person with a disability’, ‘person with paraplegia’, ‘person with HIV/AIDS’.
See how the person features, and the problem moves into the background?
DON’T USE ‘disabled access’ and ‘handicapped access’, but
USE ‘wheelchair accessible’, ‘wheelchair accessible via ramp’, ‘upper floors wheelchair accessible by lifts’.
Almost all dislike being considered as some kind of especially superhuman, brave, or courageous being. They are the same as everyone else, usually simply needing to try a lot harder, but otherwise sharing the same talents and skills, given the right opportunities, training, and support. As I understand it, these are wishes, not demands; preferences to give them back their individual self-esteem and self-belief that they remain a vital part of their world.
I’ve researched and ‘tossed around’ many ideas and suggestions for altering our perception of these folk, and believe we could achieve much with some adjusted thinking about their abilities.
‘Lesser’ ability had appeal until I thought about the effort it takes some to even breathe. Suddenly, ‘lesser’ pales significantly.
‘Different’ ability sounds good. So much of their previous life-styles differs from anything imagined, or probably even believed possible to survive.
‘Physically challenged’ (or ‘mentally’, ‘emotionally’, ‘environmentally’—the list would be long); this feels the most promising to me. ‘Challenge’ is such an understatement of what these folk must endure and overcome… but it feels honest, and the best.
And my name for this article—ALTERED ABILITY—is deeply relevant to me, despite being perceived as ‘somewhat science-fiction, compared to authentic life’ by some. Considering some implants, prosthetics and treatments, this is maybe not so far from the truth. But my meaning was the massive adjustments people with DISabilities must face as they learn to accept and live with their new reality.
All we able-bodied folk need is empathy. Not such a great ask, hey? Remembering the countless, fantastic rewards to my heart and soul from my time working with Bill as his carer and oft-times visitor/helper in his hospital and rehabilitation stints, I would give the greatest encouragement to re- stacking the odds in the fullest favour of success with the physical challenges he and people like him confront.
OMP Admin Note: Christine Larsen is a writer, farmer, wife, mother, and grandmother from Australia. She has never been homeless or had significant cancer – yet – but has had exposure to both – creating a great sense of empathy and desire to help in any way she can. She is humbled by the opportunity to give one of her stories to the sincerely worthwhile causes of Cancer research and Homelessness.
She contributed the story A bonny Wee Lassie to the One Million Project: Fiction anthology.
To find out more about Christine and her work:
Christine Larsen, Author
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