The views expressed here are for the author and do not represent any agency or organization.
Mugambi Paul is a public policy, diversity, inclusion and sustainability expert.
Australian Chief Minister Award winner
“excellence of making inclusion happen”
We know that discrimination has a big impact (negatively) on mental health – and there is a lot of discrimination that people with disabilities face and it’s so engrained in our African culture.
discrimination constitutes any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference or other differential treatment that is directly or indirectly based on the prohibited grounds of discrimination and which has the intention or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of Covenant rights…
Direct discrimination occurs when an individual is treated less favorably than another person in a similar situation for a reason related to a prohibited ground (…) Direct discrimination also includes detrimental acts or omissions on the basis of prohibited grounds where there is no comparable similar situation
the Due to discrimination and society generally making life hard unless you fit a certain mould – people with disabilities face low self-esteem and confidence, and can find it difficult to maintain employment and a healthy social life.
The impacts of disability can also extend to a person’s family and friends. On the positive side, it can bring a family closer together, but on the negative side, it can place heavy emotional demands on a family and affect their physical and mental health. One of the most crucial things to remember is that whether it be your own, or someone else’s, a person’s disability does not define them and should not stop them from achieving their goals in life
Words have power, and everyday language influences the way people think and feel about the things that are being talked about. It’s for this reason that it is so important to get language correct when discussing topics involving the disability community.
There are many words and phrases that most people know not to say. Whether using the terms seriously or in a joking manner, the words “challenged” and “handicapped” are just a few of the words that a lot of people realize are patronizing and downright offensive.
However, the phrase differently abled has come into fashion over the last few years as a substitute for the word disabled, which many people avoid because it still has negative connotations attached to it. When talking to or about someone who has a disability, many people use the phrase differently abled because it seems like a harmless term that focuses on what a person can do instead of a person’s disability, and most people who use this term mean well. But just like the more obviously offensive terms like handicapped or challenged, many people find it offensive to be called differently abled.
Why Differently Abled Is Offensive:
The term differently abled is well meaning, and it is not surprising that so many people think it would be preferable to put the attention on the ability rather than the disability. However, it is for this reason that so many people find the term differently abled to be offensive. Pretending that a health condition is just a set of interesting abilities and ignoring the disabling condition isn’t something that many people living with developmental, mental, mobility, seeing, hearing concentration difficulties or other health conditions are able to do; this is why the term comes across as patronizing. Calling someone differently abled wouldn’t be demeaning if the person actually had a set of abilities different from the average human body, such as superhuman strength or the ability to read minds. But there is no normal human body. Everyone is different. And people with disabilities aren’t the only ones who are differently abled. Some people have brown eyes, some have blue eyes and others have hazel eyes. Some people need crutches to walk, some need assistive technology to work, some need a wheelchair and others can walk unaided. No one is the same, and everyone is differently abled.
But when you have a mobility, seeing, concentration, speaking and hearing difficulties developmental or other impairments condition, it means your body is interfering with many or all daily activities. For most people, these aren’t unusual abilities. They aren’t abilities at all. They are health conditions that are disabling.
Many people with disabilities face higher unemployment rates than able-bodied people due to discrimination and a lack of accommodations. So, referring to a disability as a different ability ignores the struggles that people with disabilities go through on a daily basis, and it is understandably infuriating when someone says, “You’re not disabled. You just have a different ability!” or “The only disability is a bad attitude!” or “See the ability!”
Since the words different ability and differently abled sound like encouraging words, they do seem like the terms that you should use to avoid offense. But focusing on the supposed positive side of things and avoiding the disability only continues to make being disabled a negative thing and something to be ashamed of. The denial of reasonable accommodation should be included in national legislation as a prohibited form of discrimination on the basis of disability. States parties should address discrimination, such as (…) denial of reasonable accommodation in public places such as public health facilities and the workplace, as well as in private places, e.g. as long as spaces are designed and built in ways that make them inaccessible to all.
The CRPD states in Article 5(3) that “[i]n order to promote equality and eliminate discrimination, States Parties shall take all appropriate steps to ensure that reasonable accommodation is provided.” The CRPD defines “reasonable accommodation” in Article 2 as:
[N]necessary and appropriate modification and adjustments not imposing a disproportionate or undue burden, where needed in a particular case, to ensure to persons with disabilities the enjoyment or exercise on an equal basis with others of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Additionally, being from an indigenous community in Kenya some of these disability terminologies do not exist in my culture.
But the words disabled and disability aren’t slurs. They are identifiers, and continuing to tiptoe around these words makes it sound like they are bad. There is nothing wrong with having a disability, having one doesn’t make a person less than someone who isn’t affected by a disability and using the words disabled and disability shows people that there is nothing wrong with being disabled.
If the word disabled continues to be treated like a bad word and being disabled continues to be treated like a disgraceful thing that needs to be overcome, then people with disabilities will never be treated equally. The media and film industry in Africa have for long propagated these ableist attitudes thus denial of real inclusion.
“Seeing the ability” and “seeing the different ability” will never lead to equality. What people with disabilities need is for society to acknowledge that being disabled is okay so that accommodations can be made, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities can drop and people with disabilities can have equality?
It’s the Person’s Choice
Many want to encourage people who are dealing with a disability to not define themselves by their disability, and the phrase differently abled seems like a good way to encourage that; however, the word disabled is an identifier, and just because someone uses that to describe their health condition doesn’t mean they are defining themselves by it. They’re just describing it.
However, it’s the person who has the disability who gets to decide how they want to be labelled. If they want to define themselves by their disability, then that’s their choice. Some people who have seeing, mobility, hearing, concentration, communication difficulties developmental or other health conditions like to use the label differently abled because they find that it accurately describes what they’re going through. If someone wants to call themselves a person with a disability, disabled or differently abled, that’s their prerogative.