The Importance of Language in the Disabled Community – by Harriette Morgan

The disabled community has a very specific language, filled with nuances that can change meanings or even cause offence. Seemingly innocuous word choices can have a huge impact.

Recently there has been a rise in language which puts ‘people’ before their ‘otherness’, or more formally, person-first language. The choice between using identity-first (disabled people) or person-first (people with disabilities) is a current and fluid conversation. New Zealand officially uses identity-first language because it is more in keeping with the social model of disability. However, many individuals and organisations still strongly believe in, and use, person-first language.

The use of ‘of’ is more significant. It means that disabled people are included. The word ‘of’, as opposed to ‘for’, links disability to the human experience. It moves the language out of the theoretical and into universal dialogue. It means that disabled people are a part of everything. For example, Whaikaha – The Ministry of Disabled People, it is not the Ministry for Disabled People.  We are no longer sitting silently behind non-disabled people who try to advocate based on what they know. We are advocating for ourselves based on our lived experience.

The NZDEN leans toward the use of ‘undisclosed disability’ instead of ‘hidden disability’. A hidden disability is not obvious to an observer, and to allow the observer to “see” an individual is disabled, that individual must disclose it. ‘Undisclosed disability’ allows a level of control for the individual. They get to choose who knows about their disability.

Understanding how subtle word changes can alter the entire meaning of a sentence takes some thought. Currently we are in a period of history where society has increased political awareness through language.

The language around disability is in a seemingly constant state of flux. Currently, New Zealand society largely follows the medical model of disability which views an individual as disabled because of their individual bodily limitations or impairments. The New Zealand Disability Employers’ Network (NZDEN) is working in tandem with the New Zealand Government and other organisations to facilitate a shift to the social model of disability, especially in the business context. The social model of disability describes people as being disabled by society, through physical environments, systemic barriers, social attitudes, and exclusions. The social model of disability provides disabled people with the language necessary to communicate our inequality, it disconnects the disabling barriers from the impairment; therefore, letting us focus on what is denying us our human and civil rights and what action to take.

The disabled community is vastly divided in how it wishes to be addressed. Disabled people want to be represented by disabled people. There is a saying within the disabled community ‘nothing about us, without us’. It is the notion that communicates that disabled people ought to be, not only involved, but at the centre of any decision or policy that impacts our lives. To achieve this would require a significant shift in the societal mindset of New Zealand.

This mindset shift starts with individuals.

If disabled people, especially those of us with an ‘undisclosed disability’, are more open about our disabilities we can aid in the necessary culture shift. By being open about our disability, we can show people, organisations, and society, the value that we bring.

Though, shifting to this idea is not straightforward. Ableism is embedded in our culture and, thus, our language. Comments about different types of ‘otherness’, for example sexism, racism, and homophobia, are more likely to be called out. Ableist language tends to pass without comment. It is going to take more than one person, one organisation to change the New Zealand societal mindset. This is why the work the NZDEN does is so valuable. By working with organisations to alter their culture and their language there will, eventually, be a ripple effect throughout industries and the wider society. That being said, the significance of one individual cannot be overlooked.