The seventies, when I was born, is an almost unrecognisable place. Back then, even into the eighties, attitudes in Britain towards people of non-white ethnicity, non-British origins, non-heterosexual orientation, or disabled people were largely acceptably offensive by today’s standards. Terms that are now understood to be deeply insulting were an unremarkable part of the everyday vernacular.
Specifically in relation to the way disabled people were treated, I know I couldn’t have expected to return to my job after almost a year off sick due to my MS. In fact I could probably have expected to lose my job on being diagnosed.
Thank goodness that attitudes have changed so much since then. However I’ve noticed that the semantic struggle to define disabled people goes on. The latest I’ve heard is the term ‘diversely abled’ to describe people with disabilities. Apparently, the word ‘disabled’ is now not acceptable.
I don’t spend a lot of time labelling myself, but – like everyone else – I have labels attached to me. Woman, Mum, White, Middle-aged, MSer. And Disabled. The last one is the newest, and the one I’m still growing into, but it’s one I’m learning to accept. Now I’m learning it’s one that other people don’t want me to accept. But it’s how I navigate my way around my new world, and how I access the adjustments available to help me live normally. My Disability Railcard, my disability benefits, the reasonable adjustments I have at work because my condition is defined as ‘a disability’ in the Equality Act.
‘Diversely abled’ as a term implies something very different from the way that I understand myself. I don’t have ‘diverse abilities’. Well, I’m sure I do (total recall of interviews in the NME, 1991-1995; ability to remember the steps involved in a tap-dance triple time-step (even though I can’t do it any more). But what is more important to know about me in the context of my disability is what I can’t do. The things I can’t do don’t detract from me, they are purely incidental to me as a person, but it’s important that I am at least partly defined by them because if adjustments aren’t made for them then I can’t continue to take part in society – and then what is the point of me? What value do I have?
The desperation to find alternatives to the word ‘disabled’ make me feel quite sad. It’s a word I’ve had to embrace like all the other labels, but I’m less concerned with the word itself and more with the way it is interpreted: the barriers put up to disability, the way in which disabled people are thought of as different and ‘apart’. We don’t need more stigma around more words and to constantly redefine ourselves for public consumption. Just acceptance.