Disability or different ability: Changing words is fine, but who will change the reality?

Words have the power to create and to destroy. Thus, it is important to use them clearly and precisely, to promote the construction of a fairer world. Words change and evolve over time, just as societies, cultures and technologies do. However, sometimes, the words are also used to cover up injustice and cruelty. Sometimes, we call them euphemisms. Euphemisms are difficult to identify because they are soft, pleasant and decorative. They replace other words that, since they are to sincere, turn into being considered bad or grotesque. This is true in reference to people with disability as new words and phrases like ‘functional diversity’ or ‘different abilities’ are being used.

In Spain, the country where I was born and grown, derogatory words like ‘abnormal’, ‘retarded’ and ‘dumb’ were used in the past to refer to people with intellectual disabilities.

In 2000, the World Health Organization approved the word ‘disability’ as a generic term that includes all deficits of a person, their activities limitations and their restrictions in social participation. Likewise, different types of disabilities have been identified: intellectual, sensorial (auditory or visual) and physical. The word ‘disabled’ was accepted and used for many years in the academia, communications, politics, and among the general public. However, recently, some political parties have devised the new concept of ‘functional diversity’.

Meanwhile, in Nepal, the country where I have been living for the last six years working for the education of children with intellectual disabilities, the words used to refer to this group are evolving over time. Not so very long ago, some people used contemptuous words like ‘kujo’, ‘lato’ or ‘manasik asantulit’. These words, translated into English, mean ‘crippled’, ‘dumb’ and ‘crazy’ respectively. Those words headed towards ‘sustamanasthiti’, which means ‘slow mind’. And later, the words ‘apanga’ and ‘bauddhik apanga’ also began to be used to refer to the concept of disability and intellectual disability. However, in some Nepali laws, disabled people are still referred with the word ‘dumb’.

Recently, just as it is happening in Spain, some people and institutions have begun to promote the new concept of ‘differently able’.

In our school, Asha Special School and Rehabilitation Centre, one of the teachers is a wheelchair user. Often, when she moves around the local market, she needs help from another person because the streets are full of grooves and unevenness. Then, I ask myself: what is the meaning of telling her that she has different abilities? She does not have different abilities in her legs, she has a disability. So now all she needs is that we recognise the difficulties that wheelchair users have and implement urban planning projects to address them.

The same question comes to my mind when I look at the students of Asha School. All of them are good, innocent and pure, but they cannot follow the academic plan presented by ordinary schools, neither does any company want to employ them once they become adults. When their parents share with me their concern about the future of their children, would it be helpful if I tell them that they would not suffer because these children have ‘different abilities’ and therefore, they will have a job like other people do? Or, on the contrary, would it be better for them if we allocate more efforts to boost special education and to implement friendly employment policies?

Focusing again on the meaning of the words, ‘disability’ indicates what a person can do or not do individually. For example: Can you climb the stairs? Can you go alone on the street? Can you follow the academic plan of an ordinary school? Can you eat alone? Instead, ‘functional diversity’ and ‘differently able’ express that everyone can do things based on how society is organised. These words are politically correct, but as I was told by a linguist and mother of a child with down syndrome, they only make sense as a generic concept. Thus, it is correct to use the word ‘functional diversity’ instead of ‘disability’; but it is not correct to say that a person is ‘functionally diverse’ or ‘differently able’.

These are not only euphemisms, but they belittle the real problem. People with disabilities have a series of added difficulties to carry out activities in their daily life and to participate in the society. I wonder: Can we achieve inclusion if we deny the difficulties of these people justifying that they have ‘different abilities’? Why do we force them to choose between being excluded by contemptuous words and being invisible by sweet words? Can we just normalise what they are, recognise their disabilities and promote social policies for them?

Obviously, this is not about going back to the past and using derogatory words like ‘dumb’ or ‘crazy’, but to use terms that describe what it really is with respect. When I say that a person has a disability, I am not reducing them to their disability. I am not saying that this person is inferior to others, I am not being scornful either, I am not attributing them any negative quality. The only thing I do is to describe a part of their multifaceted identity and to say that their body, mind or senses work on an atypical way. Through the word ‘disability’, I am recognising the difficulties that a person has for doing day-to-day activities and following the rhythm that society imposes.

Maybe ‘disability’ is the right word to express this or maybe it is not. However, while we are dedicated to change the words, what worries me most to know is: who will change their reality?

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Barca, a native of Spain, is a social worker and an activist based in Makwanpur.

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