“Mind your language!”

Nikki Frittmann is a notetaker and reader/writer for students with disabilities at AUT University.  She has Spina Bifida and lives in Auckland with her husband and two cats.  Every second month she shares her musings with DPSN.

“Mind your language!”

That was what parents used to tell their kids to warn them not to swear. In the last 20 or 30 years however, some people in the disabled community seem to have taken that saying even more seriously than ever before.

“Disabled”, “handicapped”, “special needs”, “differently abled”, ” handicapable”.  All these words and phrases have been used over the years to describe those of us whose physical abilities differ from most people’s. Then there’s the very long-winded “people first” language, as in “person with a disability” or “person with special needs” and so on.

Some labels for our community have gone out of fashion now, like “lame” and “infirm” for instance.  In the case of those two words especially, I’m glad, but I’m not sure any better ones have yet come into common use. Philip Patston’s “functional diversity” phrase is a good one. It describes the difference between “disabled” (to use the popular word) and non-disabled people very well (substituting “disabled” with “unique function” and “non-disabled” with “common function”). Unfortunately it doesn’t yet seem to be part of the common language.

So what should we be called as a community? That’s not my job alone to decide and anyway, we’re all different, with opinions as diverse as our functional abilities. But my personal view is that as long as you treat me with respect, whatever you call me when talking about my difference in function doesn’t matter.

Sure, there are some labels which I prefer over others. Call me “crippled” for instance and I won’t be happy, although I’ll understand if you’re from a generation which used that word all the time when talking about people like myself. The same goes if you call me “lame”. “Handicapped” isn’t a popular word in New Zealand, but I don’t mind if it’s used by people from another country if that’s what they’re used to saying. “Disabled” is fine by me – and I especially don’t expect anyone having a conversation with me to go to the trouble of using “people first” language (though I realise this language is important in some contexts, I just feel that it’s a bit onerous in everyday conversations).

Whatever a person calls me and whatever words they use to refer to disability or disabled people, it’s not a subject I tend to get too stressed about. I’m a “people person” and to me, the communication is more important than the minor language that just gets in the way. Call me disabled, differently abled, whatever – but as long as our communication is understood, and our wider interaction respectful, the label you call me is less important.

Of course, at the end of the day you could just call me Nikki…

But what do you who are reading this blog think? If you are a member of the community commonly called ‘disabled’, is there a word, or words, you don’t like to hear yourself called?

2 thoughts on ““Mind your language!”

  1. Appreciate the sentiment Nikki. I like the idea of using people’s names as they all have meaning and significance. In many cases they convey an importance sense of whakapapa and therefore a part of who we are – at least in my cultural context as a Scottish descendant.

    I also love meeting people who truly believe they are totally normal – that is perhaps one of the most fascinating delusions any of us can develop

  2. Hi Nikki I to have Spina Bifida, totally agree that language is important! Everyone has different preferences on words that they like or don’t like to use. Great post!

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