Disability Justice

It’s Time to Retire “Able-Bodied”

As folks become more aware of ableism, there are listicles and blog posts galore explaining what ableism is, how we do it unconsciously, how to avoid being ableist, how to make spaces more accessible, and so on. This is a great trend in social and indie media that should continue! Unfortunately, all too many, even those by disabled people, use the inaccurate and problematic term “able-bodied.”

The thing is, “able-bodied” erases and others cognitive*, developmental, neurological, and psychiatric disabilities. It plays into the my-mind-is-fine trope and reinforces the medical model of disability. What does “able-bodied” even mean? Which abilities count? Aren’t all bodies able to do a thing or two?

When people use “able-bodied,” to refer to nondisabled people, it separates those with cognitive disabilities from people with physical disabilities as if the two truly were separate– as if the mind weren’t a part of the body. This implies that the mind has a higher status than the body, rather than a place within the body. These concepts, while abstract, subtly reinforce belief-systems that value intelligence, and devalue the lives of people whose disabilities affect their ability to perform intelligence in an ableist and inaccessible world.

“Able-bodied” separates physical from cognitive, developmental, neurological, and psychiatric disability, it sends a message that disabled people are split between those whose “minds are fine” and are therefore deserving of respect, while implying those whose minds aren’t fine are not deserving of the same respect and accommodation or inclusion. Further, it ignores that many people have physical and cognitive, developmental, neurological, or psychiatric disabilities.

Perhaps the most insidious thing that the term “able-bodied” does, is reinforce the medical model by implying that ability lies inside bodies rather than inside the social structure. It directly refutes the social model of disability, which says, in the words of the late and fabulous Stella Young, “that we are more disabled by the society that we live in than by our bodies and our diagnoses.” Meaning that all the abilities in all the bodies and minds are valuable and important, but the world is structured to enable some, while disabling others. As disability activists, self-advocates, and allies seek to show the world a new lens with which to view disability, i.e. the social model, they are undermining it every time they use “able-bodied” when they are describing people who are enabled by the ableist structure of society.

What does “able” really mean in the context of “able-bodied?” It implies that there is a specific set of abilities a body must have in order to be considered to have ability at all. How can we reconcile that with a movement for disability justice that values all abilities, all bodies, and all minds? We can’t– “able-bodied” is simply incorrect and far too loaded to continue using.

Circling back to using the lens of the social model of disability, we can distinguish people who are disabled from those who are not by using the terms “abled” or “enabled,” as in, enabled by the structure and culture of society. We can also center disability in our conversations by using the term “nondisabled.” Some people prefer to use the term “temporarily (en)abled” in order to highlight the reality that being nondisabled in an ableist society isn’t a guaranteed permanent status.

Our words carry lots of information beyond simple definitions. As we push for a more accessible and inclusive world, we should choose our words wisely. It’s time to leave this phrase behind us and incorporate the social model of disability into our language and ideas at every level.

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*I prefer to use the term “cognitive disability” over “intellectual disability” because “intellectual disability” is a determination based on IQ, a debunked theory about how the brain works. “Intellectual disability” reinforces the belief that IQ is meaningful, when in truth it tells us nothing about a person’s abilities or ways of using their cognition. “Cognition,” on the other hand, is a word for the ways in which a brain stores, recalls, processes, and expresses information. That’s much more useful and accurate.

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Requests for Parent Contributors to Raising Up Down Syndrome the book!

My name is Lauren Smith-Donohoe, I’m a disabled mother of 2 with one on the way. I’m writing a book about caring for a young child with Down syndrome, focusing on ages 0-3. I’m looking for a handful of parents to contribute their analysis, tips, anecdotes, and parenting wisdom to this project.

The lens the book is looking through is the social model of disability– that it is barriers to access and inclusion that are truly disabling, and that disability is a natural part of the human condition and diversity. Additionally, I am a long time activist with a background in explicitly anti-racist, feminist, anti-authoritarian, and non-hierarchical organizing: these principles are a guiding force of the project.

I am looking for parents of children and adults with Down syndrome who have a strong foundation in disability rights, as well as anti-racist analysis and praxis, to consider participating. Following in the disability rights tradition of “nothing about us without us,” volunteers who are Black, POC, LGBTQIA, disabled, immigrant, and otherwise intersectional, are a crucial part of making this all that it could be. I will also be interviewing teens and adults with Down syndrome to include their perspective on key issues, for example, what Down syndrome is and isn’t, and perspectives on therapy and intervention.

Rather than solicit a large number of anonymous anecdotes from parents, I would prefer to have a handful of parents with different experiences and ideas to contribute on multiple topics throughout the book. This is to ensure better representation and a spectrum of experiences. I can’t pay for contributions; the reality is that I probably won’t make much money off the book (unless it becomes a bestseller [;D] in which case I will revisit this with all contributors on principle and negotiate a fair amount). Despite lack of funding, I think it is still worth participating. I do believe in fair compensation for work, but I do not have the means on my own, and working with a small, indie publisher, I will not be getting an advance. This is a labor of love for me and would be for you too. All contributions will be minimally edited (only for clarity, space, technical issues) and all edits would be approved by contributors directly. Each will have a bio, and get full credit for their words.

The publisher I’m working with is Autonomous Press, a local publisher founded by disabled people who publish fiction and nonfiction about disability issues by disabled authors. I am already working on the book with a mentor-editor.

There are probably 10-12 chapters that I’d be looking for thoughts on, and a contribution could range from a short paragraph of a few sentences to a short essay, depending on how personally moving or provoking the subject matter. Not all subject matter is overtly political. Some will, of course, be practical, such as feeding, sleeping, finding the right access equipment, and so on.

Do you think you’d be interested? Please send an email to lesmith.donohoe@gmail.com with the following info:

-Your first and last name

-The age of your child with Down syndrome (if your child is still under 3, I would still encourage you to participate if you are interested!)

-Whatever demographic information about yourself that you think is relevant (here are some suggestions: race, ethnicity, religious background, class background, relationship with the gender spectrum, if you are LGBTQIA, have a disability, are an immigrant, are a single parent, and so on)

-A short description of your perspective on Down syndrome, disability, and social justice.

-Anything else that you think makes your perspective unique (not required!)

-And any questions you have for me! (And any concerns you have about this book- I am listening)

Please feel free to share this with other parents of people with Down syndrome that you think would be interested in participating. Thank you!