POINT OF VIEW — Why the word ‘disabled’ makes me cringe

Published 2020-08-14 05:29

We need to use words that put the person first

EDITOR'S NOTE: Tai Young is a 16-year-old from Toronto. Although there are a lot of things that make Tai who he is, he says that the words people use often make him feel like his disability is the only thing they see. We asked Tai to share his story.

When I was six, my family took me to the carnival for the first time.

I remember the big red tents, the rides, and the acrobats twisting through the air. Everything was so new to me and I was amazed.

But what I remember most that day happened just before the show, when a doctor approached me and my family.

Ignoring my presence, he turned to my parents and pointed to my wheelchair.

“What is wrong with him?”

“Nothing,” they said.

“Disregarding my family's answer, the man said: “Come to my hospital, I can fix him!”

In order to be fixed you must be broken. I am not broken.

Funky illustration shows a broken humanoid cartoon shape around images of wrenches, tools, and stethoscopes

(Graphic design by Allison Cake/CBC)

But as someone with a disability, hearing words like “fix” from an early age made me wonder if I should think that way.

The truth is, disabilities don’t break you, but words can.

And where some words reinforce a stigma that people with disabilities are struggling and broken, others suggest that this broken life is all we are.

Tai sits to the right of his wheelchair, which is propped up on a pedestal.

(Image submitted by Tai Young)

This has been the case ever since elementary school.

Every day on my trek to class, I would pass the caretakers who never tired of calling me speedy, and asking if I needed a speeding ticket.

Friends and peers would constantly ask me if I wanted to race.

What I really wanted was to hear some original content for once.

I’m going into Grade 11, and to this day I’m still called things like speedy.

These names can be frustrating.

I understand that they’re in no way malicious, but hearing them over and over again is a constant reminder that people don’t see me, they only see my wheelchair.

Illustration shows a cartoon boy moving down a hallway in a wheelchair, followed by two binocular-like lenses moving upward, turning everything from the viewer's perspective black except for the wheelchair

(Graphic design by Allison Cake/CBC)

This is exactly why I cringe at the word “disabled.”

One day in Grade 10, I was eating lunch in the cafeteria when a friend started telling the group how stressed she was about her final civics assignment.

She explained how the assignment was to write about activists and tell their stories.

Suddenly, it seemed like a lightbulb went off in her head, and she asked if she could write the assignment about me and my activism with my community.

I was flattered and superexcited to see the final product, but my excitement quickly turned into discomfort after reading the title:

“Tai Young, disabled advocate.”

Tai and a friend play in a rocky, watery area under an underpass

(Image submitted by Tai Young)

I have a disability. I am not ignoring that fact.

To be honest, I am quite proud of it.

But when we say “disabled person,” we are using disability as an adjective for the word person, which suggests that my identity — who I am — is solely defined by my disability.

But I am not a diagnosis. For me, my wheelchair is a mode of transportation.

People who walk aren’t called “walkers” or "abled people.”

This is why I prefer the term “person with a disability”.

This term puts the person first and uses disability as a noun instead of a descriptor.

GIF image beginning with the word disabled in large text with a person in a wheelchair to the right, the same colour as the word disabled. Then, the person moves to the left of the screen, making the word disabled disappear only to be replaced by the words

(Graphic design by Allison Cake/CBC)

It makes it clear that my disability is still a part of me, but it isn’t my only defining feature.

Being reduced to my disability is a constant struggle I face, but using words in this way helps us realize that people with disabilities are people, too.

I have never let my wheelchair define me, and I never will.

Having a disability is not terrible or sad.

What is terrible and sad is how society treats us and puts us into boxes without a ramp to get out.

Rather than fixing us, we need to be fixing the world around us.

I don’t want to be a “disabled advocate, performer, artist.’

I just want to be Tai.

TOP PHOTO CREDIT: (Image submitted by Tai Young) 

About the Contributor

Tai Young
Tai Young
CBC Kids News Contributor
Tai Young is a 16-year-old from Toronto and an ambassador for several disability organizations. Currently, Tai attends an arts high school and hopes to pursue theatre in the future. He loves the performing arts and photography. In his spare time, he monoskis in the winter and plays wheelchair tennis in the summer.

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