Recently I was talking to someone about why I passionately prefer the social model of disability, and am glad to see it catching on in the US, specifically with reference to person-first language. Person-first language is, as I’ve said in a prior post, rooted in the medical model: Something is wrong with you. You should be fixed. Social model: You have an impairment, and society disables you. Partial paralysis in the medical model is an externality, something wrong with you, something that isn’t part of you, but a personal hardship. In the social model, it’s an impairment: Undeniably part of you, something that affects the way you interact with the world — and society is built for people who are not paralysed, thereby making it difficult for you to fully participate in society as an equal.
Medical model: Too bad you use a wheelchair for mobility and that building is accessed by stairs. Social model: Who decided to make stairs the primary mode of ingress into that building?
The medical model was born from a genuine and valid desire, backed by a social movement. Historically, disability was viewed as a tragic hardship, but also something revolting and unpleasant. Disability rights activists in the US fought for the medical model, for a variety of reasons, wanting to turn disability into something more normative; it’s a thing that happens to some people, it’s not a reflection of someone’s sins, or an indicator that someone has done something wrong. The medical model created a social framework for talking about disability and treating disabled people with respect — person-first language was infinitely superior to ‘handicapped’ or ‘crippled’ or ‘invalid,’ some of the terms once used to describe disabled people (and still used today in some cases by preference of individuals or in a sense of reclamation).
This was a huge and radical move for the US. UK disability activists took it in a different direction with the social model, which was unfamiliar to me when I started thinking more seriously about disability issues. (Yes, there was once a time when I was uneducated and innocent, an impressionable duckling like everyone else! Let no one ever tell you that you’re somehow a failure for not knowing about All The Things from the moment of your birth! Not only that, but I am still learning about things, every day!) At first, being in the US and surrounded primarily by people from the same nation, I took to the medical model and person-first language. However, the more I learned, and the more I interacted with disability activists overseas, the more uncomfortable with the model I became, and one of the reasons, the one I’m touching upon today, is the embedded sense of bootstrapping.
There’s something inherently blamey, to my ears, about ‘person with disabilities,’ although I have the utmost respect for people who prefer to identify with that term (or with other person-first language, like person with autism, or person with mental illness). It sounds less like a part of someone’s identity (autistic or autistic person, mentally ill person) and more like an appendage, an externality, something sort of clumsily attached; something someone is forced to live with. It also sounds like something a person should be able to fix or overcome, rather than an accepted part of that person’s identity and reality.
We don’t say ‘person with Blackness,’ because it would sound utterly bizarre. As a descriptor, ‘Black’ is not simply about skin colour, but about culture, society, racial complexities, identity. Blackness isn’t an appendage, a shortcoming, something to be incised away or embarrassed by, but rather a part of who someone is, and how that person interacts with the world. Blackness can take many forms, can be experienced in many different ways, but it is an identity class, not simply an adjective. Likewise, we don’t say ‘a person with womanness’ or ‘a person with transness’ or ‘a person with queerness,’ because we view these things as identity markers. A woman. A trans person. A queer person (or just a queer, depending on preference/pejorative use). Yet, disability is exceptionalised, as a wrongness, something not inherent to the body, something unfamiliar and strange.
It sets disabled bodies apart from others. We can recognise that people are, for example, of different genders, but both are natural variations on the human body. We can also recognise other variations of the human experience, accepting that not everyone looks, lives, and acts the same. Yet, we are stumped by disability; disability is the outlier. In response, the medical model classifies it as a wrongness, and treats disabled people — sorry, people with disabilities — as outsiders and something to be fixed. This model promotes an inherently bootstrappy approach: You need to overcome disability to become as normal as possible so it’s possible to remove the appendage and become just an ordinary person.
It’s such a US way of thinking, to assume that all people interact with something intensely personal in the same way, and to assume that all people would want to be stripped of a nonnormative identity marker if they could be. There’s an exceptionalism there: white is normal, Black is not; man is normal, woman is not; straight is normal, queer is not; cis is normal, trans is not; nondisabled is normal, disabled is not — in fact, standard English doesn’t even have a term for nondisabled, illustrating how normative this state of being is in the minds of many English speakers. While many people have come up with various terms (many of which I don’t really favor, though I would like to propose the tongue-in-cheek ‘person without disabilities’), there’s not a broadly-accepted term for people who aren’t disabled.
Disability is so exceptional, there’s not even an identity class for nondisabled people, because they’re just the norm. And disabled people could join them, if only they took responsibility for their disabilities and stopped faffing about.
Image: boots in motion, mark notari, Flickr