As the disability rights movement gains more traction and awareness, discourse over the etymology of the word “disabled” continues to grow. There are several disputes regarding whether the word should be altered to be more inclusive. Questions about the identity and status tied to the word are at the source of the debate.

Currently, some have chosen to shift towards person-first language. So instead of using the phrase “disabled people,” many have opted to use the phrase “people with disabilities.” There’s also a new way to be more inclusive. People have begun to highlight the word “ability” within the term “disability.” Some have also advocated for the removal of the prefix ‘dis’ altogether as the root stands for “opposite” or “apart.” Yet, these preliminary changes of the word “disabled” have many pondering whether this subsequent rephrasing is moving in a more progressive direction. To fully grasp the significance of this debate, understanding the history and common misconceptions surrounding the term is incredibly important.

What does “disabled” even mean?

While disability itself is not a new concept, the perceived meaning behind the word has changed dramatically. The mass hysteria surrounding the definition largely stems from individuals’ inability to define it effectively. Because it is such a loaded and dynamic term, trying to accurately capture its meaning within a few short phrases poses serious problems. For instance, in 2005 the American’s with Disability’s Act recognized the definition of “disability” as

“ a substantial restriction in the capacity of the person to carry on a profession, business or occupation in the State or to participate in social or cultural life in the State by reason of an enduring physical, sensory, mental health or intellectual impairment”

Not surprisingly, this definition was widely detested as it implied that people with disabilities are incapable of adequately integrating into daily life or completing basic tasks and functions. This flawed definition has inadvertently aided in shaping how people view disabilities, and therefore disabled people.

There are multiple meanings?!

Another reason why people often misinterpret the meaning of the term is that different types of disability exist. For instance, the medical model, which gained traction during the development of modern medicine, perceived disability as a consequence or condition with sole responsibility residing on the individual. This model actively searched for a means to alleviate or mitigate the limitations created by the disability.

Contrastingly, the social model views disability from a cultural and societal lens. It identifies barriers created by the individual’s environment as the disabling factor rather than the individual. Responsibility to change and reduce the obstacles ultimately falls on the public rather than the individual. This interpretation more accurately aligns with the concept that “disability” is more than just a term or a label; it’s an identity.

Disability is a social construct

Due to the term’s vast ambiguity, society has managed to construct their interpretation of what disability is or is not. If you ask someone what they think “disability” means, most people can conjure up a relative idea in their head. However, many tend to dichotomize “disabled” and “abled,” placing them at the opposing ends of the spectrum. Because these two terms appear opposite to one another, it’s difficult for people to distinguish those who reside in the middle. Many perceive that someone can be one or the other, never both.

People’s understanding of what a disability is and how it appears is vastly construed. This is because disability is often closely tied with a physical and or visible impairment. The reality is, a large majority of people within the disabled community are in classified as having an “invisible” disability, meaning their disability is not immediately apparent or noticeable.

Why these alternatives will not measure up

Many have difficulty understanding the significance of the term due to the commonly held misconception that living with a disability in an inherently negative experience. There is often a collective assumption that being disabled or having a disability is an inadequate way to live. Feelings of shame are often associated and projected onto disabled individuals by society.

However, simply erasing or changing the word is not the ideal solution to this problem. The reality is, the word’s history holds an archive full of discrimination and intolerance towards those who bear its name. People in the past have used the term as a means to degrade and erase the identities of disabled people. So changing or altering the word could result in a harmful degradation of people’s identity.


As a disabled woman myself, I use to feel a sense of shame when disclosing my disability. Due to the several misconceptions perpetuated by society, my idea of my own disability was stifled. I tried to dissociate myself from the word as much as possible. I perceived “disability” as a dirty word, and to me, it stood as a mark of indignity. If I could pass off as “able-bodied,” I would deem that as an achievement.

I, by no means, am the only person who has dealt with this internalized struggle. It only recently caught my attention when others addressed me by using alternative phrases like “handicapped” or “differently-abled” to describe my disability. After reflecting on those experiences, I then took it upon myself to research the origin behind the word. I now recognize the power behind reclaiming the term “disability.” Understanding the history and etymology behind it can aid in mobilizing the conversation about disability consciousness.

Disability is so much more than just a word, medical term, or label — it is an identity. And it is one I am proud to call mine.

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