Friday, June 19, 2009

I Am Disabled, Not a Person with a Disability

After reading Jackson’s post about person-first language, I decided to steal his topic and throw in a new perspective.

You may or may not have noticed that I used the term “disabled people” and “people with disabilities” interchangeably. This is because I realize that different people prefer different terms depending upon how they identify themselves.

For me, I am a disabled young woman. I am not a young woman with a disability. I understand that the way I see myself is not politically correct, but I’ve never been politically correct, so I’m not worried. To me, if I were to say I am a young woman with a disability, it would make my disability seem like an accessory and I won’t undermine my disability like that.

I will never know if my loud, strong-willed, stubborn, and “disturbingly friendly” (thanks Ari) personality would be the same if I was not disabled. It is impossible to tell how much affect my disability has had on my personality, but I’d be willing to bet it’s had a huge affect.

Although I will never know how much affect my disability has had on my personality, I know for a fact my disability has had an amazing affect on my education and career. For starters, I have been an overachiever for a very long time so that I could prove to the rest of the world that sitting in a wheelchair does not make me stupid. Being ahead of everyone else academically was just one way for me to prove that although my walking skills are not that great, my other skills surpass the average. Additionally, I am currently a member of the Higher Education Opportunity Program, which basically means the majority of my $34,000 college costs are covered. To get into this program a person must come from a low-income family and be a minority. Thank God I’m disabled because simply being a poor white girl would not have covered $34,000! Because I am covered by this program, I was also able to study abroad in Ireland for a semester. This amazing opportunity would have never been possible if I wasn’t disabled.

Beyond my education, my career pretty much revolves on how cool being disabled is. First, as I’ve mentioned before, I work for the Center for Disability Rights as the Transportation Systems Advocate. My whole job revolves around making public transportation better for people with disabilities. I would have never been hired for the position if I didn’t have the experience of being a disabled person who has encountered both good and bad transportation systems. Second, I have been invited to present with Mobility International USA many times to talk about my experience studying abroad as a disabled student and encourage other disabled students to study abroad too. Third, I’m an AAPD intern! I am getting an experience of a lifetime working in Senator Harkin’s office. I never would have had the chance to be an AAPD intern without my disability.

Being disabled has never held me back; on the contrary, it has opened so many doors and propelled me forward. I am so proud to be a strong disabled young woman. I would not be the same girl without my disability.

For these reasons, and a million more, I cannot identify myself as a person with a disability. I cannot pretend my disability is just an accessory separate from me.

My disability is part of me and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Stephanie Woodward


  1. Definitely!!

    I found myself having the same reaction to "person-first" entry. Everybody is entitled to their opinion and I definitely found it an interesting and different perspective that I enjoyed mulling over.

    But STILL, I always say "I'm a DEAF person" not "I'm a person with deafness..."

    And I don't even attempt to try count how many times I've said "Oh how interesting my ears make my life!!"

    - Leah

  2. Ari:

    From Jim Sinclair, Autistic self-advocate and founder of Autism Network International, in his article, "Why I Dislike Person First Language":

    "I am not a "person with autism." I am an autistic person. Why does this distinction matter to me?

    1) Saying "person with autism" suggests that the autism can be separated from the person. But this is not the case. I can be separated from things that are not part of me, and I am still be the same person. I am usually a "person with a purple shirt," but I could also be a "person with a blue shirt" one day, and a "person with a yellow shirt" the next day, and I would still be the same person, because my clothing is not part of me. But autism is part of me. Autism is hard-wired into the ways my brain works. I am autistic because I cannot be separated from how my brain works.

    2) Saying "person with autism" suggests that even if autism is part of the person, it isn't a very important part. Characteristics that are recognized as central to a person's identity are appropriately stated as adjectives, and may even be used as nouns to describe people: We talk about "male" and "female" people, and even about "men" and "women" and "boys" and "girls," not about "people with maleness" and "people with femaleness." We describe people's cultural and religious identifications in terms such as "Russian" or "Catholic," not as "person with Russianity" or "person with Catholicism." We describe important aspects of people's social roles in terms such as "parent" or "worker," not as "person with offspring" or "person who has a job." We describe important aspects of people's personalities in terms such as "generous" or "outgoing," not as "person with generosity" or "person with extroversion." Yet autism goes deeper than culture and learned belief systems. It affects how we relate to others and how we find places in society. It even affects how we relate to our own bodies. If I did not have an autistic brain, the person that I am would not exist. I am autistic because autism is an essential feature of me as a person.

    3) Saying "person with autism" suggests that autism is something bad--so bad that is isn't even consistent with being a person. Nobody objects to using adjectives to refer to characteristics of a person that are considered positive or neutral. We talk about left-handed people, not "people with left-handedness," and about athletic or musical people, not about "people with athleticism" or "people with musicality." We might call someone a "blue-eyed person" or a "person with blue eyes," and nobody objects to either descriptor. It is only when someone has decided that the characteristic being referred to is negative that suddenly people want to separate it from the person. I know that autism is not a terrible thing, and that it does not make me any less a person. If other people have trouble remembering that autism doesn't make me any less a person, then that's their problem, not mine. Let them find a way to remind themselves that I'm a person, without trying to define an essential feature of my personhood as something bad. I am autistic because I accept and value myself the way I am."

    Copyright (c) 1999 Jim Sinclair



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