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I’ve always had a problem with the phrase, “The Disabled.”

First of all, it’s essentially meaningless. What does it really tell you? Specifically?

Nothing, if you take a moment to think about it.

The people who could be said to fall under the category of “The Disabled” is immense; too immense to be contained in a single phrase. We’re asked to include people with such significant cognitive and physical impairments that they require 24/7 support, along with people like me — paralyzed, so clearly I have a disability, yet I’m professional, active, self-supporting, and as fully independent, if not more, as many people who can walk.

I’m by no means an isolated case. LOTS of people with disabilities reside on the active and vibrant end of the scale.

What’s the point of using a phrase that describes such a hugely broad spectrum of people? When you read it or hear it, what’s it supposed to mean? Who is the writer/speaker actually referring to? Towards what end? A phrase that is so broadly indefinable can’t communicate with clarity.

As the reader, you’re left to figure it out on your own, thrust into the risky business of inference. For me, as a writer, I don’t want you to have to fill in the spaces on your own. I want to be clear, and I want you to get what I mean.

Which is why you’ve never seen the phrase “The Disabled” in my writing — unless I’m commenting on the phrase itself, as I am now. And I’ve got plenty more to say about it!

When you hear or read “The Disabled” you’re unlikely to stop and think about what it’s supposed to mean in whatever context it’s being used. You’re going to unconsciously draw on the automatic meanings attached to it, the connotations, the stereotypes. Here’s what I think people get when they encounter the phrase.

They get a picture of a population who needs to be taken care of. “The Disabled” suggests a group of people who can’t fend for themselves. Every time I see or hear the phrase I feel the social stereotype deepened, steeled, reinforced that disability is a state of being that precludes independence and being self-supporting — much less being creative, productive, or great in bed, for that matter. The other end of the scale, the population where I reside who have no need to be taken care of, is completely missed.

“The Disabled” require, if not demand, money from the government for entitlement programs, and impose the cost of accessibility in our built environment. It’s one of the most common places we see the phrase, in news reports about government policy, about spending cuts in hard economic times i.e. “Programs for the disabled.” The implication is that people with disabilities represent a pure cost to the economy, give nothing back, and if the “Angry Cripple” stereotype is at play here, then we expect to be well fed while gnawing down hard on the hand doing the feeding. Again, I’m not included. I don’t get, much less demand, any government supports. (My health insurance doesn’t even cover any of the cost of a wheelchair for me.)

I imagine many people consider “the disabled” a burden on our society, yet accept (begrudgingly, perhaps) the social obligation to “do the right thing” by them. I imagine people assuming without much thought that the “right thing” represents some kind of compensation for the suffering of their impairments and limited, difficult lives.

The use of the phrase “The disabled” actually precludes the real conversation we critically need to have, namely that disability policy is not just about helping people who need it (and their families) meet basic needs. Wise disability policy invests in people with disabilities living as well and independently as possible, exactly so we’ll properly apportion money for the people who really do need caretaking.

I can tell you what got me worked up about this. It was Barack Obama’s second inauguration speech. It was a pretty good one on the whole, I thought, but he failed on the disability measure this time, having done not so badly in the past.

The only mention he made of disability was this: “For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty, and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.” The only mention.

The implication is pretty clear, isn’t it? A child with a disability is a burden on a family, and they need outside support to ward off poverty or whatever other horror you’d care to imagine. Nothing in his statement even remotely implies that these children with a disability could grow up with self-esteem, explore their talents and interests, look forward to a future as an active, engaged person who functions in every milieu of our society and their community. No. They are “The Disabled.” They need to be taken care of by their parents — who therefore need to be taken care of by our government. By tax dollars right out of your pocket.

I’m asking you to respond very differently whenever you encounter the phrase “The Disabled.” Yes, as an ethical society we want to provide for people who truly cannot provide for themselves. How we treat that slice of our human family speaks volumes about the values that underlie our society.

But remember that “The Disabled” doesn’t begin to describe the growing and emerging population of people who happen to have disabilities who don’t collect entitlements, and are anything but a burden to their families. They are entirely worthy of our making an investment in the full and independent lives that we are all “entitled” to as members of a free, democratic society.