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Disability language: does it really matter?

Disability language can be a weird animal at times, and everyone seems to have an opinion. I and others who are disabled have been corrected on it frequently; usually by those who don’t have a disability themselves.

I’ve been corrected for using #CrippleLooseInLondon, when using it about myself in a way my disabled friends found hilarious. An autistic friend was told they shouldn’t call themselves ‘autistic’, but rather a ‘person with autism’ - by someone who wasn’t autistic. It’s the same with being blind. I’ve been told I should say visually impaired, but my friends who have sight loss tend to prefer ‘blind’.

The question is, does it matter?

Here’s the thing, it’s not always the language that’s the issue- it’s more to do with the attitude behind it. My husband often calls me ‘lurch’. I find the horrified looks around me very amusing, but the point is; his attitude is one of love. He knows me and wouldn’t say it if it upset me. I have heard people say “we’ve got a wheelchair in church”, about myself and others . I actually find this language more worrying because it says they haven’t seen the person, only the disability. It’s much better to use a name than a condition or mobility aid!

Someone was praying fervently and said “let’s show God how serious we are about this prayer and stand up”

Yes, there is some etiquette to be aware of surrounding disability language that can be helpful. But we need to remember it isn’t the only way and certainly isn’t set in stone. Many will have their own preference, and none of us speaks for the other.  The best advice is to not correct the language a disabled person uses about themselves.

But let’s take the question “does it matter” a little further.

I was at an event recently, sitting comfortably in my wheelchair. Someone was praying fervently and said “let’s show God how serious we are about this prayer and stand up”. Many who question disability language wouldn’t see this particular faux pas as a problem. I gasped when I heard it; the lady behind me (also a wheelchair user) wondered out loud if her prayer wasn’t serious because of her posture. Others looked at us both, feeling our discomfort.

To see how this language or statement may look to those with disabilities and understand how it affects us, we need to look at it in a greater depth. It’s often referred to as non-inclusive language; telling a congregation to do something where there are people present who can’t. “We’re all going to stand to sing” or “Let’s all read that together” are two other examples (of which there are many others).

This is usually not deliberate, just not thought through. I am told by many people with disabilities that this terminology makes them feel their worship or participation is not valid or worthwhile. 

When events or churches use language such as, “can I invite you to stand if you’re able” I’m often asked if that’s a bit patronizing, and at one event was told off by a delegate for being patronising to the ‘handicapped people’. There may be some who don’t like it, but they will realise that others find it helpful. Some of this language is known as ‘able-ist’. But there are other forms of it.

Using disability terminology to describe a person or action when there is no actual disability. For example, telling a friend they’re  “insane”, or saying  "you spastic" if they trip over. It could also refer to someone saying an action is ‘crippling’ a business.

There are many views on this in the disability community.

Some will take you back to history where such terminology was used oppressively, for example; someone diagnosed as  a ‘moron’ and admitted to an asylum would be abused and oppressed. Therefore, use of the term moron is felt to be more than just a childish taunt.

Others will point to valid words taken and used abusively by non-disabled people, or words where the origins of  them were designed to be invalidating, such as invalid (in-valid).

Some refer to Biblical and Theological terminology being ableist. For example, using specific disabilities to make a teaching point such as "blind to sin", or saying someone’s prayer life is ‘crippled’.

This is currently the most divisive debate in the disability and theology communities with heated words spoken all on all sides.

Because this is such a big issue for many, I will be writing a separate blog about it, but for now I just wanted to share how and why language is important when you have people with disabilities in your churches…or should that be disabled people?


Read part 2 here: Disability Theology: Should we be using terms like 'cripple' as metaphors?


Written by Kay Morgan-Gurr

Chair of Children Matter, Co-founder of the Additional Needs Alliance, part of the Evangelical Alliance Council. Blog: “Pondering Platypus”  kaymorgangurr.com

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