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Disabled People or People with Disabilities?

We recently took part in an amazing training session from Diversity & Ability about inclusive communications, at which one of the points was that disabled people in the UK generally prefer the phrase “disabled people”.

There is a lively debate among disabled people and organisations who work with them about whether the more appropriate terms is “Disabled People” or “People with Disabilities”. The topic is so well covered it merits it’s own place on Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disability#Sociology

The two sides have been called people-first language “People with Disabilities”; and identity-first language “Disabled People”. A trend seems to be that those trying to emphasise disabled people’s status as people with human rights use people-first language.

Meanwhile those aiming to mobilise communities to claim power and challenge injustice use identity-first language. Identities can be a source of pride and strength, and wearing that identity can be particularly important for people who have been marginalised or ignored. For many being out and proud with your identity is a political act.

Compare how “Disables People’s Alliance” sounds compared with “Alliance of People with Disabilities”. Which sounds more inspiring? More radical? More committed to change?

To some extent identity-first language matches with the social model of disability (there is no such thing as inherent disability, people are actively disabled by society putting up barriers to their participation); and the medical model (disability is a family of health conditions that an individual can have – i.e. people with disabilities). The match isn’t perfect though, and plenty of organisations using people-first language use the social model. At International Service we use the social model of disability.

People-first language is useful when the challenge is to get societies and decision-makers to acknowledge that disabled people are people are an entitled to the full enjoyment of their human rights, to equality before the law. Simply to describe the status quo, it seems there is a place for the language, in international legal documents and drier apolitical organisations.

But what about at street level? On campaigns? In protest songs and slam poems? At International Service we work with young people who passionate about social justice and the climate emergency; many in our community are young disabled people and our audience is also international, an in some cases the phrase “disabled people” has been used to dehumanise and not to self-empower.

That’s why generally, and especially in an activist and UK context we will now normally use the phrase “disabled people”. There are some times we’ll use “people with disabilities”: when we’re speaking with people who would find the former phrase hurtful; or to avoid miscommunication speaking with institutions, particularly internationally.

It would be nice if we could have a definitive answer for all cases but sometimes life’s not like that.

PS: modifiers! Should it be “young disabled people” or “disabled young people”? I think that would depend on the context, but as we are often talking about projects which have an overt goal of challenging structures which discriminate against disabled people we would normally use the “young disabled people”, where “disabled” is the primary identity and “young” is the modifier.

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