Why we should talk about the ‘dis’ in disability?

The social reality in which we live is influenced for better or for worse by our language, the words we use and the meaning we convey through them. And when we talk about disability, this is no exception to the rule. For instance, in Europe and the UK is more acceptable to say ‘disabled person’ while in North America it is more appropriate to connotate that like ‘a person with disability’, following that in the latter case we put the person first and after that the disability. 

All of this can have consequences on the way people with disabilities are perceived in public, from being considered as an individual who does not deserve attention to ‘outlier/rarity’.

However, I am wondering, is it not more appropriate to remove the ‘dis’ in the disability altogether? How the language we use affects people with disabilities and what type of associations it can create in our minds and influence our perception?

“Part of the problem with the word ‘disabilities’ is that it immediately suggests an inability to see or hear or walk or do other things that many of us take for granted. But what of people who can’t feel? Or talk about their feelings? Or manage their feelings in constructive ways? What if people who aren’t able to form close and strong relationships? And people who cannot find fulfilment in their lives, or those who have lost hope, who live in disappointment and bitterness and find in life no joy, no love? These, it seems to me, are the real disabilities.”

– Fred Rogers, The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember

An example of challenging the status quo is Jan Cocks who was paralysed by mosquito when she was little. She proposed the word ‘disability’ to be changed during the Paralympics in 2016, and ‘para-ability’ to be used as a substitute (Phil Stale,2016).

If we look at the past and we see how people with impairments have been described, we can be astonished and shudder at the thought of imaging someone using them. That’s because in the past people with different conditions have been humiliated and bullied by the language we use. The main problem with the word ‘disabled’ within the structure of the social theory of disability is that it put emphasis on the disability first, not on the individual. Should we not reconsider how we approach people with disabilities and give them a choice of whether they would like to be described in that way? Even if we look at the grammatical structure of the word, we can say clearly that when ‘dis’ prefix is used implies negative association or lack of something, e.g. distrust, discourage, disconnect.

To be honest, I’ve never perceived myself as a disabled person first, even though I have been diagnosed with cerebral palsy when I was 7 months old. Just like everyone I know I would rather be perceived as the person who I am and not be a subject to labels and prejudice from the moment someone sees me.

There is a Greek word ‘isothymia’ that refers to the need to be recognised as merely an equal to others, as the idea has been used in creating the American Declaration of Independence. However, there is another word named ‘thymos’ that exemplifies the need for recognition, there is much debate around it, but quite recently it has been agreed that the inner part of the self and outer part should be worthy of recognition.

By saying that someone is ‘disabled’, we simply rob that person of the chance to be recognised externally in his physical abilities and partly internally as we create false assumptions based on the conclusion we already made.

Imagine that you have a friend, her name is Rose, and she is dyslexic. Are you going to say ‘my dyslexic friend’ or ‘my disabled friend’? It is the same type of language we use when we want to emphasise that someone comes from a different country, ‘my Polish friend Nadya…’ for example. But pay attention to the fact that we tend to use ‘my Polish/Chinese etc’ connotation when we want to emphasise on an aspect of person’s identity, but we tend to use the term ‘disabled’ quite often, either for generalisations or when we talk about specific person. Should we not instead saying ‘my disabled friend’, just said my friend and drop the disabled part?


Radost is part of the Marketing Team at Steps To Work. She is passionate about creating a lasting impact and facilitating positive change. 

Radost Dineva

Marketing & Communications Officer , Steps To Work