Opinion

To be determined?

Every so often, I receive a request to share a Parliamentary petition with my Twitter followers. On Wednesday, I learned I was one of a handful of disability activists asked to support one calling for ‘disabled’ to be replaced with ‘people of determination’. Let’s talk about that.

The petition, currently standing at the grand total of 17 signatures at the time of writing, calls on the UK Government to “stop using the limiting terms ‘disabled’ and ‘disability'” in favour of the term “people of determination” – a phrase which petitioner Sam Dunlop claims “empowers and acknowledges the tenacity to progress”.

Except it doesn’t, and we really have to question just who is being empowered by “people of determination”, because something tells me many disabled people facing inaccessible services or infrastructure are not going to suddenly find the barriers they face will suddenly disappear if they have a more positive frame of mind. That ramp isn’t going to magic itself out of thin air, those subtitled screenings aren’t going to be scheduled all of a sudden, and ableist aren’t going to start being nice to you if you ask for them to call you by a different name.

Disability is not a dirty, shameful or divisive word. In fact, it is perfectly neutral. It’s usage amongst many in the disability community is based upon the social model, which claims we are not disabled by our conditions, but rather when we are in the presence of negative societal attitudes and infrastructure. It is hardly “limiting” when for many, it has provided a route in which to shift the narrative away from perceiving us as the problem or the ones which need to change, to understanding it is society which needs to make vital improvements. It’s a far healthier mindset to adopt than merely arguing disabled people just need to be a bit more determined when faced with such barriers, and describing ourselves as such will suddenly mean non-disabled people sit up and take notice. Even if they did, it’s impossible to deny that some non-disabled people will simply move towards benevolent ableism, the kind of harm and discrimination caused under the guise of it being “well-meaning” or carried out with “good intentions”.

The petition falsely claims the term ‘disability’ is “seen by some as implying it is something caused by the individual, rather than society’s unwillingness to meet [their] needs”. If they subscribe to the social model, they’ll know we are ‘disabled’ by attitudes and infrastructure.

The social model is in direct contrast to “people of determination”, which implies tolerance and acceptance of ableism and inaccessibility when it rears its ugly head, and to merely persevere and weather the (s***)storm which comes our way in such scenarios. The social model, meanwhile, points out what needs to be done to strive towards equality – that the dismantling of ableism would mean we are no longer “disabled” in society. It also allows for the caveat that we succeed as disabled people despite ableism, in a way which makes the case that we are “determined” individuals without a dash of inspiration porn on the side. That is true empowerment.

Empowerment also comes from community, and something tells me you get little of that using a term which only appears to be publicly supported in the UK by one Twitter account (seemingly managed by the petitioner), and privately backed by around 15 other people. Said Twitter account has even conceded that “everyone is determined”, and so rather than deal with the helpful dichotomy of disabled and non-disabled people, our identity is erased in the ambiguous pool of “determination” – which sounds like a rejected Indiana Jones sequel.

How can we identify areas we need to change if we simply subsume these issues into one wider, monotonous collective? There’s a reason why we wouldn’t advocate for any other marginalised community to rename themselves as something which the majority can use to describe themselves, because to do so would be to weaken their impact, to minimise the challenges they highlight as a community, to ignore the rich diversity in society for the monolithic.

But be reassured, for Dunlop has evidence of “people of determination” supposedly working in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Twitter account promoting the petition argues “data” from the country shows the adoption of the phrase has “led to increased services and equality”.

It is, in fact, a link to the UAE Government’s webpage on “people of determination”, with no clear datasets pertaining to how such an unusual term has improved access in the country – a country which doesn’t exactly have the cleanest of human rights records and thus, maybe isn’t the best case study to draw upon.

In another hurried search for evidence, the Twitter account linked to a research paper titled “inclusive dialogue develops inclusive policies and practises for people of determination”, from Aida Mohajeri of Harvard University.

The tragedy is that the paper – at least, judging from its abstract, seeing as the full paper has to be requested from Ms Mohajeri – makes no recommendation, comment or conclusion about the effectiveness of “people of determination” as a phrase. Instead, it notes that “for an inclusive education system, and therefore society, the implementation and conception of policies and practices must also hold an inclusive spirit” – essentially, in order for actions to be inclusive of disabled people, a mindset around engagement and including disabled people needs to be adopted.

A pretty good point well made, but alas, it doesn’t support the argument for “disabled” to be ditched as a term altogether. I was encouraged by the Twitter account to search online for “data UAE people of determination” to find some statistics, and yet the only data available concerned “people of determination” card holders in the country, not their increased access to services or the removal of any societal barriers.

Even if it did, to claim that attitude or language change is the only solution to ableism and disability discrimination is naïve at best, and plain ignorant at worst. Describing disability in more positive – or even just neutral – ways is part of a much bigger effort towards equality for disabled people, including calls for better representation in a variety of industry; effective engagement, consultation and co-design; and much, much more.

I am a disabled person, and I am sure as hell proud of that fact, and it is far from anything to be ashamed of – quite the opposite.

I won’t support this move to erase the work of disabled activists of both past and present, united under a shared identity of disability. While I will always support the right of individual people to use whatever terminology to describe their disability as they see fit, it’s the forcing of these language choices on the wider community that I am committed – no, determined – to shut down.

Read my thread which inspired this post over on my Twitter.

Think Outside the Box...

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