Why Gimpy Law? Part II: Dissecting “Disability” (Dis + Ability)

What happens when we dissect the politically correct word, “disability?” The OED defines “disability” as (1) “A physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities” and (2) “A disadvantage or handicap, especially one imposed or recognized by the law.” (See OED “disability”). While the legal definition of “disability” (e.g., under the ADA and Social Security Act) is a discussion for another time, the OED definition still emphasizes the limitations and disadvantages of people with disabilities. Similarly, the OED’s definition of “disable” emphasizes limitations and decreased functionally: “(Of a disease, injury, or accident) [that] limit[s] (someone) in their movements, senses, or activities: it’s an injury that could disable somebody for life” with the synonym, “Put out of action.” (See OED “disable”). I don’t consider that my disability puts me “out of action” since I do what I want to do, but just differently. I realize that some may not see it the way I do, but that is ok. These definitions of “disability” are still problematic in today’s post disability rights society that seeks to emphasize people with disabilities’ abilities, rather than our limitations and disadvantages. However, as the Department of Labor’s May 2014 19.5% labor force participation statistic of people with disabilities (versus 68.7% labor force participation of people without disabilities) suggests a disconnect between what our society actually thinks and what it wants to believe that it thinks. (See DOL’s “Current Disability Employment Statistics”).

Dissecting “disability” further, the etymological background of “disability” comes from 1570s for “want of ability;” referring to dis- + ability. (See etymonline “disability”). According to the OED, the prefix “dis-“ can: express negation, denote reversal or absence of an action or state, denote removal of a specific thing, and/or express completeness or intensification of an unpleasant or unattractive action. (See OED “dis-“). When combined with the word, “ability,” which the OED defines as (1) “Possession of the means or skill to do something” and (2) “Talent, skill, or proficiency in a particular area,” “disability” essentially becomes the opposite of, or negates, ability. I object to this understanding of disability (dis+ability). My disability may make my means of walking challenging, and for some people with disabilities not possible, but that doesn’t mean that we are completely restricted from having mobility; as there are wheelchairs and mobility devices. Likewise, my disability does not limit my means of obtaining talent, skill, or proficiency in becoming an attorney, but other factors such as societal attitudes and physical access may make it more challenging. (I recognize that some people with disabilities cannot afford appropriate mobility devices or have accessible schools, especially in other countries that have less physical access and social acceptance, but that doesn’t help my argument. So let’s do what we do best as Americans and ignore this, if only for the sake of my argument, and also ignore the fact that the United States still has a long way to go to achieve complete physical access and social acceptance.)

Is the word “disability” better to use than politically incorrect words, like gimp? Probably. But is “disability” perfect? I don’t think so. Language is always changing. I anticipate that in the future there will be other terms and language to describe disability, since what’s appropriate today may be replaced with other language tomorrow. As someone integrating disability studies and theology pointed out, the person first language that I thought was politically correct, at least from my disability studies courses (which were ironically called rehabilitation courses, right around when the word, “rehabilitation,” fell out of favor with the disability community since it suggests that people with disabilities need to be fixed) a decade ago, is in controversy within the disability community. Some people with disabilities want to own their disability by putting the disability first, back to “disabled people” (which used to be politically incorrect), rather than the person first language, “people with disabilities.”

I am not advocating overthrowing the word, “disability;” it’s okay for now. As we evolve as a society and world, I anticipate that we will find better language to encapsulate our community and our uniqueness, instead of focusing on our limitations and disadvantages.


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