I was chatting with a man who has multiple disabilities, when he suddenly said, “What’s up with the whole person-first thing? Why am I called a man with disabilities instead of a disabled man?”
“Do you want to be labelled a disabled man?” I asked.
“Why not. I am.”
“But isn’t that putting your disability ahead of who you are?”
He scowled. “My disability is who I am. I’m not ashamed of it. Are you?”
“No. But we wanted to make sure people with disabilities…”
I continued, “… were seen as people who are equal to others.”
“We, meaning the allies.”
Nodding, I said, “Yes. We allies.”
He said, “Look, I know you allies mean well, but shouldn’t we disabled people decide what we want to be called?”
He was right.
How often do we allies decide the labels we give to others?
This conversation made me think of the labels used in the LGBTQ community. What do he labels Bi-sexual and Pan-sexual mean? What’s the difference? If you love someone other than your own gender you’re Gay, unless you’re a woman, then you’re a Lesbian. If you love both genders then you’re Bi-sexual, but where does Pan-sexual fit? Transexual, transgender… who decides what you’re called? Labels are vehemently debated and discussed in the queer community, but how are they discussed in the disability community?
What are my own labels and who gave them to me? White. Woman. Middle-Class. College educated. Mother. Middle-Aged. Teacher. Writer. Celiac. Feminist.
Labels have meaning, which gives them power. Therefore, people should decide for themselves what label they claim. If my friend wants to be referred to as a “disabled man” then that is his right. Another person may want to be a “person with disabilities”. That is their right. An ally should respect the choices of the individual, otherwise can we really label ourselves allies?