The Evolution of Disability
Human language has been around for thousands of years, and has gone through great evolutionary steps in that time. As we learn and grow as a collective species, so too do the words we use. One of the major leaps we have taken is in regards to physical and mental disabilities.
My uncle was born with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Throughout most of human history, he would not have the opportunities he does now. With extensive care and modern technology, he has lived decades longer than doctors anticipated, operates a computer, and travels with relative ease via electric wheelchair. We have reached a point where the word and notion of “disabled” must inevitably evolve.
The term “disabled” has been a standard phrase since at least the 1960s. It was not intended as a negative connotation, but as an objective description for physical and mental conditions. It replaced words such as “crippled” or “handicapped” that were also intended as objective descriptors, but are now seen as offensive. This is not a reprimand of our ancestors, but rather an acknowledgment of our progress. The word “disability” uses a prefix, dis, that is defined as “to have a primitive, negative, or reversing force.” It is often used negatively, whether we are discrediting someone’s reputation or disengaging from a conversation. This results in a negative connotation whenever it is used.
More and more people do not want to be labeled with a word using such a negative prefix. Especially when technology and opportunities continue to challenge the idea that their abilities are “primitive” or “reversed.” Bio-ethicist Rosemary Garland Thomas instead uses the term “human variation” – something that is part of human reality and is to be accommodated, as opposed to a problem to be eliminated. As culture evolves, we are able to place more emphasis on potential and what people can do, as opposed to labeling them by the things they cannot do.
The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) was formed with the goal to make the province barrier-free by the year 2025. Movements and organizations have been promoting this objective. Growing up, I have seen my uncle build websites, travel to places in weather doctors did not think he could handle, and excel in games such as chess or Scrabble without touching the boards. Humans can collectively help each other meet our potential when we all focus on our positives and strengths.
This will take time, as does the growth and change of human thought and language. It has been an ongoing growth over the course of millennia. After all, the AODA itself has the term “disabilities” built right into its name. The term will likely be around for a while. The connotations behind the word, however, continue to evolve. The word will inevitably be replaced with better descriptors, and in due time those words will inevitably change as well. What matters more than the words we use is the thought behind them. As we change our perceptions of others, people of all physical and mental conditions will continue to focus on their potential for the betterment of humanity.
Atkinson, Rebecca. “Viewpoint: Is it time to stop using the word ‘disability’?” BBC News. http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-ouch-3438573
Ontario. “The Path to 2025: Ontario’s Accessibility Action Plan.” https://www.ontario.ca/page/path-2025-ontarios-accessibility-action-plan
Oxford University Press. “The language of mental and physical disability.” https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/writing-help/the-language-of-mental-or-physical-disability