I was recently asked why I refer to myself as ‘disabled’? – As if it was a really bad thing.
Believe it or not I found this question to be quite perplexing, and it got me thinking …
What’s in a Word?
The language and words we use are so important because they are essential to every aspect and interaction of our daily lives. We use language and words to inform the people around us about how we are feeling, and what are wants and needs are.
It’s our language and the words we use that enable us to question & understand the world we live in.
What happens though when we use words to describe people or things that by pure definition are negative in their essence?
Does it then depend on our tone and accompanying gestures that determines how the word is ultimately communicated?
I personally have struggled to understand a few words throughout my life, those being ‘Disability’ and ‘Amputee’
Now, as someone who was born missing a limb, using one simple word to describe this fact hasn’t been as simple as you might think.
I personally refer to myself as an amputee; however, I now know that this perhaps isn’t the correct terminology because I didn’t actually have my arm amputated.
And over the years I’ve actually been told numerous times by others who are missing a limb, that I’m not a ‘true amputee’.
For me personally I took more offense to being told I wasn’t an amputee – because it felt as though there was a competition among the amputee community, a bit like the more severe your amputation or limb difference the more the term fits. This is just my personal opinion, and if I’m being honest it really upset me while I was growing up.
Supposedly the correct term for my ‘condition’ is Congenital Birth Defect …
Now, I’m sorry but when it comes to describing myself to another person, I have never once said, ‘Hi my name is Jess and I have a congenital birth defect’.
For pure ease I simply say, I’m an arm amputee.
It’s only been recently that I realised perhaps the words I use offend other people – and of course that was never my intention.
Over the years it has been quite difficult for me to understand what words to use to describe myself, and consequently I often feel the awkwardness of others in certain situations - because if I don’t know how to describe myself, how on earth could anyone else.
The word ‘Disabled’ or ‘Disability’ are other terms I find interesting. They are both words that I often use to describe myself. “I have a disability”
But by pure definition these words do not at all represent me as a person – if you were to Google ‘disability’ or ‘disabled’ you will find definitions such as;
“Physically or mentally impaired, injured, or incapacitated.”
“Lack of adequate power, strength, or physical or mental ability”
“A physical or mental handicap, especially one that prevents a person from living a full, normal life or from holding a gainful job.”
None of the above accurately describes who I am as a person. I certainly don’t lack power or strength – I represented my country for more than 7 year in the sport of swimming. I have also worked full time for many years, and anyone who knows me would agree that I’ve never let my ‘limb difference’ stop me from doing anything.
But the fact is, I am still missing part of my left arm and therefore I am different.
And I’m totally OK with that.
I am of course very mindful of the language and words I use to describe others, but the fact is, I still use the words ‘amputee’, ‘disabled’ & ‘disability’ to describe myself.
Do I personally take offense to the words other people use to describe me?
No – the only time I would be offended by the way another person described me is if the words being used were said with a discerning tone or negative conviction.
Surely how I chose to describe myself is my choice?
I think the issue is the way society creates definitions and words that when used in a negative context, create limits for people.
I absolutely see how the words ‘Disability’ & ‘Disabled’ can be portrayed negatively, but at the end of the day it is how I personally interpret these words that matters most.
And if I don’t have an issue with it, then I hope no one else has an issue with using such words to describe my ‘differences’.