Crippen asks – What’s in a name?!

I recently had a discussion with a disabled activist friend from Africa who pointed out to me that many of his friends and colleagues in the global South still view us through the lens of our infamous past.

Our history of riding rough-shod over cultures and religions that were different from ours, enslaving or at worse ending the lives of those that decided to challenge our imperialistic viewpoint. And let’s not kid ourselves, the vast majority of the wealth that some still have in this country came from slavery and the rape of those countries producing everything from exotic woods and sugar cane to tobacco and spices (all usually harvested by slaves).

This issue came up when we were discussing the Social Model understanding of disability and how they used the term ‘people with disabilities’. He explained that as much of their connection with the rest of the world since the late 1940’s originated through the United Nations, this was how they had been described. Their approaches to other mainly western organisations for funding, for example, reinforced this description. It is only recently that they have been encountering disabled people from the UK who describe themselves as ‘disabled people’, using the Social Model understanding of disability as the basis for this.

Another friend from Africa and a member of the Association for Comprehensive Empowerment of Nigerians with Disabilities (ASCEND) told me that they had chosen this name at the time because it suited their vision of ascending to take their rightful place in society. This was considered a more important focus than whether or not they used the term ‘disabled people’ or ‘people with disabilities’.

It seems that we are the only ones that are hung up on this particular aspect of the language of disability, insisting that everyone else use the term ‘disabled people’ if they are truly following the Social Model understanding. Again, it was pointed out to me that it was mainly the white disabled people in the UK who are once again saying: “We are right and you are wrong, and you must change your language to accord with our viewpoint!”

Having spoken with disabled people from many parts of the world, although they mainly describe themselves as being ‘people with disabilities’ they also follow the Social Model understanding and are as radical in their approach as many groups in the UK, if not more so as they also have to contend with corrupt governments and civil wars.  

So, the bottom line is, if we want to engage more with our disabled brothers and sisters in the global south and other parts of the world, we’ll have to let go of our insistence that ‘disabled people’ is the only term that we will recognise. Perhaps we should begin to accept that what we’re called is just a bit of a smoke screen and that there are wider issues at stake here, such as combining our resources to fight a world that is continuing to erect barriers to disable us – people with disabilities and disabled people alike. 

Cartoon description for those using screen reading software

Three black disabled people are in front of a large sign which reads: Association for comprehensive empowerment of Nigerians with a disability (ASCEND)’. Each of the three have a sign around their neck. They read: ‘The banks are not encouraging national integration’ and ‘It’s not a crime to use a wheelchair’

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