Bad Ideas About Disability

 Photo of a yellow diamond road sign reading BAD IDEA

I spent some time this morning in an exasperating Twitter discussion about disability terminology. A man started off angrily objecting to the #CripTheVote hashtag for being offensive, and quickly moved on to rejecting almost every common disability term ... including simply “disability” ... as out of date, offensive, negative, etc. The only thing remotely like a workable terminology he would accept was “special needs,” which made some sense since he said he was an educator. I should also point out that the man said he is hearing impaired, which gives his opinion on the subject some authentic credence.

Soon the conversation between him and about 5 other disabled folks boiled down to an absolutely ironclad, and in his view moral belief that “disability” itself doesn’t exist, since everyone has unique abilities and disabilities. I think I am paraphrasing him more or less accurately.

Both views ... about disability terms and about disability itself ... are familiar to me. Both are generally well-intentioned ideas put forward by people who sincerely believe they have a progressive understanding of disability. However, both are also, in fundamental ways, regarded as bad ideas by significant portions of the disability community.

This particular man happened to be extremely obnoxious and condescending, but in a way that is beside the point. He was being obnoxious about ideas that at least some polite and fair-minded people also sometimes advocate. The discussion has prompted me to start working on a new series of blog posts on the most prominent and influential bad ideas about disability.

I don’t mean bad behavior, intentionally offensive language, or simple ignorance. I won’t be citing “ableism” as one of those bad ideas, because it’s much too broad. I won’t include random theories tossed off by someone in the course of a freewheeling conversation. I’m talking about relatively specific, well-intentioned, carefully thought out, and widely circulated ideas about disability that are, unfortunately, bad.

And what do I mean by bad? Since I want to steer clear of categorical judgements like right or wrong, accurate or inaccurate, I’ll count a disability idea as “bad” if it meets one or more of the following criteria:

  • It makes a sizable percentage of actual disabled people angry or uncomfortable.
  • It fails to accomplish its intended purpose.
  • It tends to lead people ... intentionally or unintentionally ... towards behavior that is harmful to disabled people.

I’m not quite ready to dive in full force on this series. I plan to take my time with it. So over the next few months, my tentative plan is to explore these three bad ideas about disability:

1. Using euphemisms for disability ... (e.g., differently-abled or special needs)

2. Espousing the idea that disability doesn’t really exist.

3. Asserting that there is a limit to the amount of support and accommodation disabled people should expect from society.

If you want to nominate another bad idea about disability, along these lines, feel free to leave a note in the comments.