On Disability, Language and Meaning


“Why is she in a wheelchair?”

That day, we were discussing how high school students could visit a health center, and I had posed a question about what might hinder self-advocacy in these spaces. In the student’s hand, a slip of paper painted one of the scenarios to unpack: two girls in a relationship, both sexually active and seeking information  about what safe sex looked like at a health clinic. But the conversation had shifted to the image of a young person in a wheelchair. Perhaps the couple pictured did not fit their expectations of what two sexually active people in a relationship. After asking the student to clarify, we talked about the possibility of a health worker not taking her question seriously because the worker think information about safe sex is not applicable to someone in a wheelchair.

Looking back, I am reminded of the importance to not conflate disability with inability, as well as the hurtful implications that seemingly innocuous language can carry– regardless of intention. We ought to ask ourselves: What biases and beliefs lie beneath what we say? What meanings and histories do these words and phrases and remarks hold, and what might I be reinforcing by saying them? We are told to ask ourselves these questions when we use clinical diagnoses as catch-all terms that stray far from nuanced definitions, like calling yourself OCD because you’re particular about your desk arrangement. We should do the same with ableist language.

For a long time, I described others with mental illness as having “suffered from” or being “afflicted by” it. I’ve since changed my language to they have and live with it. Sure, their mental illness might be debilitating, and they might genuinely see it as a source of suffering, but that isn’t anyone’s narrative to define but their own. After Stephen Hawking’s death, journalist Wendy Lu addressed the saliency of language when writing about disability. She urged writers to avoid turning Hawking’s story into “inspiration porn,” a frame enabled by language like “bound to a wheelchair” and “suffered from ALS.”

When we talk about ableism, we rightfully look at large, systemic issues like the inaccessibility of transportation options and the rollback of legal protections for people with disabilities. But we should also talk about the language we use and its ability to reinforce biases that create an environment hostile to their needs. Going forward, I will continue to be cognizant of the everyday language I use. I plan on paying more attention to the implications accompanying phrases like “crippled by,” which I had thought little of until our discussion about disability at the CUNY Graduate Center. 

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About Christina

Hi everyone! I am a junior at the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College, and I am studying Human Biology and Public Policy. My experiences as a health educator cemented my interests in the intersection of social inequity and health. My interests center on the development, implementation and ethical implications of public health policies, specifically those addressing food insecurity and sexual/reproductive health. In my spare time, I enjoy wandering around art galleries, reading all kinds of literature and singing with my friends.


  1. Your points about language are particularly compelling, because we do think in language, and ultimately the quality of our thoughts can only be as good as the quality of our language. Ultimately, language cannot be value-free, and you demonstrate that beautifully, To that point, I wanted to share an article that I’ve been rather torn about and see what your thoughts were on it


    I also wanted to include a few sections of “Bluets,” by Maggie Nelson. In those segments, she discusses caring for a friend who became a quadraparalytic–I think it speaks to the trouble of not wanting to be defined by an injury or illness even as it shapes one’s body, and the struggles of a sort of binary outlook on disability.

    “We’re only given as much as the heart can endure,” “What does not kill you makes you stronger,” “Our sor­rows provide us with the lessons we most need to learn”: these are the kinds of phrases that enrage my injured friend. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to come up with a spiritual lesson that demands becoming a quadri­paralytic. The tepid “there must be a reason for it” notion sometimes floated by religious or quasi-religious acquaintances or bystanders, is, to her, another form of vi­olence. She has no time for it. She is too busy asking, in this changed form, what makes a livable life, and how she can live it.”

    “My injured friend is now able to write letters via voice-recognition software to keep her friends abreast of changes in her condition, of which there have been many. “My life can change, does change,” she asserts-and it has, and does, often in astonishing ways. Nonetheless, near the end of these letters, she usually includes a short para­ graph that acknowledges her ongoing physical pain, and her intense grief for all she has lost, a grief she describes as bottomless. “If I did not write of the difficulties un­der which I labor, I would fear to be misrepresenting the grinding reality of quadriplegia and spinal cord injury,” she says. “So here it is, the paragraph that roundly asserts that I continue to suffer.”

  2. Christina, words have power! Your post drives this point home As someone who is STILL learning how to address and have conversations about people with disability, it is important to know what to say and how to say it as to not further marginalize anyone. Thank you for sharing!

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