Disability impairment, culture, language and labeling

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]

Impairment, Culture, Language, and Labeling

The American Psychological Association style guide states that, when identifying a person with an impairment, the person's name or pronoun should come first, and descriptions of the impairment/disability should be used so that the impairment is identified, but is not modifying the person. Improper examples would be "A Borderline, a "Blind Person." For instance: people with/who have Down syndrome, a man with/who has schizophrenia (instead of a Schizophrenic man), and a girl with paraplegia/who is paraplegic. (This applies only to English, possibly other, prepositional languages, not postpositional languages.) It also states that a person's adaptive equipment should be described functionally as something that assists a person, not as something that limits a person (e.g., "A woman who uses a wheelchair" rather than "in" it or "confined" to it. Many books on disability and disability rights point out that 'disabled' is an identity that one is not necessarily born with, as disabilities are more often acquired than congenital. Some disability rights activists use an acronym TAB, Temporarily Able-Bodied, as a reminder that many people will develop disabilities at some point in their lives, due to accidents, illness (physical, mental or emotional), or late-emerging effects of genetics.

The late Prime Minister Olof Palme of Sweden, speaking at the Stanford University Law School in the 1970s, summed up the divergence between U.S. and Swedish attitudes towards people with disabilities:

  • Americans regard the able-bodied and the disabled as, effectively, actively or not, consciously or subconsciously, two separate species, whereas,
  • Swedes regard them as humans in different life stages: all babies are helpless, cared for by parents; sick people are cared by those who are well; elderly people are cared by those younger and healthier, etc. Able-bodied people are able to help those who need it, without pity, because they know their turn at not being able-bodied will come.

Palme maintained that if it cost the country $US 40,000 per year to enable a person with a disability to work at a job that paid $40,000, the society gained a net benefit, because the society benefited by allowing this worker to participate cooperatively, rather than to be a drain on other people's time and money.


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