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You Don’t get to Change my Identity to Make you Feel Better

What is it with people trying to force toxic positivity into my identity? 

Enabled, different abilities, special abilities, people of determination. The common theme is trying to make my identity into something that doesn’t make non-disabled people uncomfortable.

Society has decided that “disabled” is a negative term. People think it means we’re being down on ourselves, but for many, the term is neither positive nor negative. 

The social model acknowledges that much of what disables us is the barriers put in place, and changing the word we use to describe ourselves is not changing that any time soon.

If anything, changing it places the pressure back on us just to get on with it and push through the barriers in ways that we simply can’t or shouldn’t have to do. 

My identity isn’t going to be twisted for your comfort. Your discomfort comes from the ableism you have been taught, compounded by every aspect of society, and it is your responsibility to unlearn it. 

Why do I need to use polite, nondescript language to be respected?

“Disabled” is a descriptive term, and an accurate one. The idea that using it means I’m putting myself down didn’t come from me – that’s come from your biases and your ableism. 

The thing is, if you can’t even accept the language we use, how can we get you to understand our needs and push us towards disability justice and liberation? 

When you try to enforce a new word for disability, you don’t make us feel empowered – you take our empowerment away from us. 

For a lot of us, being disabled is something that comes with not only pride in ourselves, but with a whole community of people who we wouldn’t have otherwise. 

Certainly, there is a form of grief that can come with understanding and embracing your disabled identity. 

Knowing you will always be up against an ableist society, knowing that something like chronic pain will never go away, finally understanding why you’ve been different all your life – those are all things disabled people can face during this acceptance. 

But there is beauty in it. There is a liberating feeling in embracing yourself, in finding the people who get it. 

There is resistance in being proud of being disabled no matter how many times people say “you shouldn’t call yourself that!”. 

When a petition went round last week arguing the UK should exchange disabled people for “people of determination”, it pushed a flare of irritation around my body and made me immediately protective. 

This term originates from the United Arab Emirates, and whilst it may work for their culture, it will not for the UK and its disabled population. 

It isn’t language that supports our needs or discussions around them – anyone can be determined, and we shouldn’t need to be determined to get the equality and access we need.

All of these terms based in toxic positivity, whether that be determination, special or enabled, are inherently linked to the inspiration porn that disabled people face every day. 

Society loves to tell us we’re strong, we’re battling against the odds, an inspiration to us all. Sometimes I just want to go to Sainsbury’s without it being compared to climbing Everest. 

Of course, sometimes these terms come from disabled people themselves – we certainly can’t pretend it doesn’t. I’ll always respect those who chose their own terms, but I will not allow them to be pushed 

On a purely practical level, acknowledging I’m disabled gives me certain rights – but it does so much beyond that. It helps me communicate my needs, and helps people understand that I need more support. 

The disabled community saved me when my entire world tipped upside down. 

What does special abilities do, except maybe make people think I can fly or turn invisible? 

Toxic positivity doesn’t help anyone. I am disabled. Yes, I have talents, hobbies, other things that make me unique. But the term doesn’t negate any of that, it never did. 

You were the ones who decided that disability is a negative or makes any of my other characteristics mutually exclusive to it.

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3 replies on “You Don’t get to Change my Identity to Make you Feel Better”

Fantastic piece of writing. I’ve worked with disabled children for many years teaching swimming. To be honest I was very nervous at first and frightened of saying the wrong thing . ” see you” to the blind swimmer. But relax and be yourself.

Your argument for changing words is very persuasive. I am a mom of a son with severe cerebral palsy. I speak up for him and for those who need a voice to speak for them. You clearly do not need a voice from others. You can say what you mean and mean what you say. When our son was born 52 years ago, he was labeled “idiopathic retardation,” and we were confused. Then he was retarded and disabled. It became words that had no meaning. There are many in the categories. Then it was ‘challenged” (I think), and then “special needs.” It was very hard for me to be corrected by others who had no one in their family who fit this description telling me what to say. It was “offensive” to them! I have become used to making others feel comfortable using “special needs” to describe my son, but it was pushed on me and not descriptive of his needs. It is hard to make others happy with words we use. It is that way for any group others want to make feel better. Words change, but the meaning is often less clear. I think you said it right. It is an effort to make those who fit the category not feel uncomfortable with others for who they want to put a positive spin on their labels. Good luck with that. It will soon change again, and even as parents, we have to learn unfamiliar words and “other’s meanings” to the description they want to describe my son…and others. Thank you for your obvious message.

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