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Should we replace the ā€˜dā€™ word? Hell, no! / 1 October 2015

A photograph featuring several popular toy brands modified to look like they have various impairments

Rebecca Atkinson's Toy Like Me campaign went viral in April 2015. Photo:

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I’m fired up to write a blog about something that we grapple with all the time working in the disability arts sector. Yes, the ‘d’ word. I’ve just read a BBC Ouch blog entitled 'Is it time to stop using the word "disability"?' by Rebecca Atkinson, who headed up the Toy Like Me campaign to persuade toy manufacturers to include disabled characters. In my opinion, we absolutely don't need a new word for disability/disabled. The word isn’t the problem. It’s society’s attitudes towards it.

Being inducted into social model thinking when I started working in the disability arts sector in 2005 completely and utterly shifted my perspective. I only wish I’d been taught about it as part of mainstream education because then everyone else I work and socialise with would understand it too, and we probably wouldn’t need to be having this conversation again and again. 

It’s a shame that the article didn’t go into more detailed information to explain the social model, because just using social model language on its own has no impact at all unless that vital shift in thinking happens. People simply being told to use the PC words won’t be inclined to use them unless they understand why they are doing it in the first place.

The term “people with disabilities” is one that I find most problematic. It’s not obviously offensive like some others and it’s in common usage, but in my opinion it reinforces the medical model by inferring that disability means impairment. 

It seems to me that this is totally at odds with the social model, which refers to impairment as a “characteristic, feature or attribute within an individual which is long term and may, or may not, be the result of disease, genetics or injury". The social model asserts that it is the physical, social and attitudinal barriers in society, which make people disabled. 

Surely, if that is understood then “people with disabilities” becomes a grammatically incorrect phrase? Can you have a barrier? Or do you experience one? If people prefer a person-first approach then surely the correct phrase is “people who are disabled” or, for those not worried about that person-first approach and prefer brevity, “disabled people”?

I completely understand and respect that it is people’s right to self-identify as they choose and I would encourage individuals to really think about it. I just want to say that for me, as a non-disabled person, coming into a world of working for and collaborating with disabled people on a day-to-day basis for the past decade, understanding the social model and resulting use of language has been absolutely vital to the ethos behind that work. I, and I’m sure many of my colleagues also, continue to drive forward the work we do underpinned by that empowering way of thinking.

In the blog Atkinson refers to the etymology of the prefix “dis” explaining that: 

“The definition of "dis" in one English dictionary is to "have a primitive, negative or reversing force". To discredit. To disengage. And in recent parlance "diss", with an extra s, has been popularised as an abbreviation of disrespect - "Don't diss me."”

However, I was much more taken with Lawrence Carter Long’s interpretation at CripFest back in July 2015 when he said: 

“Don’t be afraid of the ‘Dis’. You can disturb, you can distil the information, you can discover new ways of being… ‘Dis’ the prefix means to be set apart a little bit, that you are over and above and beyond whatever is attached to that word. So if you are looking at disability, you are beyond ability, you are reframing ability, you are putting ability in a new context, looking at it from a new angle, from a different direction. In everything that you do… the work you bring out to the world, don’t be afraid to own it and don’t be afraid to shake that up.”

This debate may be ‘that old chestnut’ (Colin Hambrook, Dao Facebook group 30/9/15) and those who have been involved for decades may be tired of it, but it’s still relevant to so many people and one that will probably be around for a long time to come. 

Keywords: disability representation,disability theory,labelling,social model


Esther Fox

7 October 2015

Completely agree Trish. As a relative new comer to social model too (around 2006) due to a mainstream education and no real connection to other disabled people - the social model revolutionised the way I understood the word disabled. As soon as we have confirmation and understanding that the "problem" is not with us but it is the barriers society presents us with, we can proudly be a disabled person.

Ruth Gould

6 October 2015

Well put Trish....great words from Lawrence too...

Bob Williams-Findlay

2 October 2015

There are points in every decade where people want to appraise 'the language' associated with those of us with bodies which fail to conform to the desires of the ruling classes. Often these people are silly little virgins who have no sense of history or appreciation of the debates and struggles that shaped who and what we are; they simply jump in like saviours, uninvited and unwelcomed.

The meanings associated with 'disability/disabled' are contested and struggled over; there's no right or wrong, differing ideological positions fighting for hegemony.

What makes this particular piece different from the rest is that it is happening at a particular political conjuncture; the Tories are hell bent on destroying the NHS and Welfare State; intent on creating super-exploitation which requires re-defining 'the underclass' and making sections of this group look more attractive to the labour market.

The individual tragedy approach,(wrongly called the medical model), is now problematic within late capitalism because it fosters dependency rather than constructing people with impairments as usable 'commodities' - the bio-psycho-social model has shifted the terrain and Rebecca Atkinson and the BBC's Damon Rose are mere pawns in this ideological-political onslaught. Atkinson is clueless, but her contribution serves to undermine the struggle to define disability as imposed social restrictions and to prevent society acknowledging 'disabled' as being a self-defined political identity.

Sophie P.

2 October 2015

Nice one Trish! x