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I am disabled and you can call me that

When I was in polytechnic studying psychology, our lecturers who taught modules about special needs education told us never to use “labelling” terms like “autistic” or “disabled”.

The author, seen here at his polytechnic graduation ceremony in 2017, says he does not care for the term “person with disabilities”.

The author, seen here at his polytechnic graduation ceremony in 2017, says he does not care for the term “person with disabilities”.

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When I was in polytechnic studying psychology, our lecturers who taught modules about special needs education told us never to use “labelling” terms like “autistic” or “disabled”.

They define a person by their disability and, by extension, fail to acknowledge that there is more to the person than their medical diagnosis, the argument goes.

So I was surprised to see Dawn-Joy Leong, a Singaporean advocate for the rights of the disabled who has autism herself, use terms like “autists”, “autistics”, and “autistic people” to describe herself and other people with autism when writing on her Facebook page.

Surprised, but pleasantly so.

The dominant way of talking about disability is the person-first model. School counsellors, special needs education officers, and case workers are trained to use terms like “persons with disabilities” rather than “disabled people”.

By putting the word “persons” in front, the idea is that listeners will be reminded that the people being referred to are human beings, just that they have some disabilities.

In contrast, calling someone a “disabled person” uses an  identity-first structure that places the disability in front, raising concerns that the person will only be seen as disabled.

But is this pointless semantics and political correctness gone out of control?

I can’t speak for everybody. But I, for one, don’t care for the term “persons with disabilities”.

The term is too long-winded for my liking. Why type out three words or pronounce eight syllables when the alternative, “disabled people”, has only two words and five syllables? It seems like a waste of time and energy to me.

And energy is precious for me. Living with spinal muscular atrophy, a degenerative neuromuscular disease that causes my muscles to shrivel up and die over time, I don’t exactly have an abundance of energy to get through the day. Every movement takes great effort.

So I usually choose shorter phrases like “disabled people” when conversing with others.

Do you agree with the author?

YOUR SAY: Tell us what you think

One day early last year, I called myself a “disabled student” in an introductory email to one of my university instructors, a retired Reuters journalist.

In her reply, she shared her thoughts on the term “disabled student” which she felt is “labelling and stigmatising”.

“In your case, even from my first meeting with you, I clearly see your abilities and I will think that there are plenty of ways that I can describe you: such as a person with great strength of character to have got this far, a man with no small amount of determination, etc. These are traits that are far from disabling,” she said.

She asked that I consider using “a student living with (physical) disability” to introduce myself in future.

Personally, I don’t mind being called a “disabled person/student”. I am also cool with the word “handicapped”, which is hardly used nowadays because it is deemed to be demeaning by implying that the disabled have some kind of disadvantage.

This argument, though, is silly because the fact of the matter is that we are at a disadvantage. Denying it is an empty gesture and could actually be harmful. If people do not recognise that we are at a disadvantage, they might not offer us the support we need to level the playing field.

Here’s another thing that gets on my nerves: People telling me that I am inspiring, thinking it is a compliment to me.

I get them quite often, especially from those I am meeting for the first time and who discover that I have done “amazing” things like earning a polytechnic diploma and a place in university “despite the challenges I face”.

But those who say that persons with disabilities are inspiring are engaging in a process called "Othering" — mentally distancing themselves from the person with the disability.

Their unconscious self is telling them: “Daily life must be a whole lot harder for that guy. Thank goodness I’m not him!”

I find such comments insulting because I personally do not see myself as inspiring at all.

I am simply doing my best to survive in this world. I have good days, I have horrible days, and I have faults which you won’t see until you get to know me in person.

In other words, I am a multifaceted human being that’s more complicated than the “inspirational” figure you see.

Reducing me to a figure of admiration hurts me in two ways.

First, it dehumanises me by stripping away all the elements that make me who I am, leaving only what is “desirable” to see in someone so “inspirational”.

Second, it evokes a mix of uncomfortable emotions in me. I feel embarrassed at the compliments I receive because I really don’t feel that they’re warranted. I also feel stressed, because I fear the shame that I will bring upon myself if I fail to live up to people’s lofty expectations of me in future.

When people find out that I’m an undergraduate in the National University of Singapore, the most common reaction is one of awe that I “made it” into such a prestigious institution.

Would they say that to the other almost 40,000 NUS students who are, for the most part, perfectly healthy? If not, what makes me different?

As Cassandra Chiu, a blind advocate for the disabled, wrote in her book A Place For Us: “People are inspiring. But when we make that proclamation solely based on someone's disability, even if it's intended as a compliment, it risks tokenism and turning an otherwise positive word into a superficial platitude.

"There is an entrenched habit of feeling sympathy for someone who is disabled, as if doing anything beyond being miserable at home with a disability is exceptional or 'inspirational'!”

My point is this: Persons with disabilities are a diverse group. Some get offended by identity-first terminology and some don’t. Some get annoyed by you calling them an inspiration, and some don’t.

The most important thing is to listen. Listen to what the person with the disability is telling you.

As Ms Leong wrote on Facebook: “I share this over and over again. In the hope that someday… someday… non-autistic people will finally pay heed and just use the term that autistic people prefer… Autistic. OK? Autistic. Yes, say it again, Autistic. Thank you.”

If I ever correspond with her, I know exactly what terminology I will be using.



Jonathan Tiong is a third-year student at the National University of Singapore where he is majoring in Communications and New Media.

Related topics

disabilities special needs Enabling Masterplan

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