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Thursday, 12 February 2015

Why 'Non-Disabled' is better than 'Normal'

Earlier this week, I heard a well-known paralympic athlete talking about disability sport on the radio. After she made some very good points about the importance of volunteering, she struggled to find the words to describe non-disabled people. Initially she went with 'normal' and then she settled on 'able-bodied' but it was clear from the hesitation in her voice that she was happy with neither.

At first I was shocked to hear a disabled person using such overtly 'ableist' language. But then I realised that it is hard to find words which describe a person's lack of disability in a way which doesn't end up reflecting negatively on disability itself.

I make a conscious effort to avoid using the word 'normal' in a disability context. 'Normal' carries connotations of 'standard', 'regular' and 'usual' which immediately posits disability as something marginal, unexpected or undesirable. 'Normal' suggests a hierarchical judgement where disability is always irregular, out-of-step, different. And not in a good way.

'Able-bodied' is less contentious (but still, I would argue, inadequate). It too sets up a hierarchical binary where ability is more highly prized than its opposite. And it is also misleading. It puts the focus on a body's ability to do (or not do) certain things and therefore seems to privilege mobility-related disabilities over other kinds (such as sensory or cognitive). And it forgets that all bodies - including disabled bodies - can be 'able' in a whole variety of ways.

My favourite term for people who do not have a disability is simply 'non-disabled'. I like the fact that the negative in this expression is associated with the kinds of bodies which are usually described positively. This suggests that disability is something to celebrate and implies that non-disabled people are  missing out. Like 'partially blind' (rather than 'partially sighted'), 'non-disabled' encourages us to rethink the traditional deficit model which sees disabled people as lacking something. It allows us to celebrate 'disability gain' and gives us a way of talking about the differences between people, without making insidious value judgements about them.

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