By Albert J. Rizzi, M.Ed.

I am someone who happens to be gay. There was a time when if someone called me a “Queer” or a “Fag” I would have considered knocking them on their ass. As a man who happens to be blind, were you to call me disabled I would similarly take you to task, though perhaps less physically as I have mellowed with age.

Words mean things. As time passes, meanings change. Seemingly benign terms to describe a group not only change but also, many times, turn into pejoratives.

In the context of race, religion, or sexual orientation, the changes over the years are obvious to anyone who is paying attention, especially those of us on the receiving end of such marginalizing phrases, derogatory comments, or slurs. Likewise, there have been changes to terms used to describe the disability community as well.

Once in our history, someone who was incapable of speaking was called “dumb.” If they could not walk, they were commonly referred to as a “cripple.” If the person was slow mentally they were called “retarded.” Let’s not even start with the word “handicapped.” If I say these words aloud, I cannot help but cringe.

This is not an issue of being politically correct, but being sensitive to how people want you to refer to them. It’s more a matter of respecting an individual’s personal preference of referring to things such as  their condition, race, gender. I personally do not like being labeled at all, save the one label I am proud to wear: I am an American, first and foremost.

Anything else that people want to use as a label is for their own self-serving purposes. Unless and until I find it offensive, then I will speak up and make my preference known. In civil society, one would never intentionally mispronounce someone’s last name. To do so is rude and disrespectful. After being put on notice, why would one continue to refer to another as belonging a group that is inaccurate, outdated, or offensive?

I’m not saying it’s easy because it’s not. It’s a difficult path to navigate. Even as someone who has a heightened awareness of the issues involved, I sometimes inadvertently offend others within my community. Thankfully, people feel emboldened to speak up instead of suffering in silence.

I remember once on a conference call with a few colleagues, I simply referred to someone as being a “mental midget.” A woman on the call became  obviously upset or, as I assumed, confused. She asked me to repeat myself. Thinking I may have not been clear with my backhanded reference to the person being ignorant, I said he was not the “sharpest tool in the shed.” She insisted I repeat myself exactly.       I innocently reiterated the term, “mental midget.” She went off on me, saying that she was a little person and offended by my words.

I didn’t refer to her as a midget. Nor did I know, at that time, how offensive the word “midget” was to little people. Regardless, I learned something about words that day.

Then there are people who are called “wheelchair bound.” People with mobility issues are not “bound” to their wheelchairs and, as such, it’s neither PC nor appropriate to refer to them in this way.

Going a little deeper, there are also issues with words that by themselves are perfectly fine. However, when society ascribes them to a group or when people start to refer to themselves in this way, it’s limiting and demeaning. As our society moves forward, so does the vernacular we use to ‘dis’ label people.

In the disability community, we have an ongoing conversation about if we should be referred to as “Disabled” as opposed to being “a person with a Disability.”

By definition “disabled” means, “Having become or having been rendered inoperative like a disabled computer, car, engine or bomb.” People cannot be disabled because, if they became inoperative, they would be dead. Therefore, I am not “disabled” but I am “a person with a disability.”

I prefer and request people refer to me as a “person with a disability” as opposed to a “disabled” person. I honestly do not feel disabled in the traditional sense of the word. I am just a man who happens to be blind.

I think the world would be a much better place if people were more empathetic and in these situations and mindful in the future instead of brushing it off and discrediting the person as being too sensitive.

With all of the different qualities that make up a person, why does society choose only one thing about us to describe us and, in essence, use that label to marginalize and disenfranchise us? Why can’t we be individuals with a difference that distinguishes as unique and valued?

In a recent thought-provoking piece in Muscular Dystrophy News Today, Ralph Yaniz explores the issues related to being referred to as “Disabled” or “Having a Disability.”

He asks, “Do you want to say that despite being a person with so many skills, you consider yourself a disabled person? Or would you rather focus on the great strengths you bring to this world as an able person?”

It’s food for thought. If you’re a person who happens have a disability, I hope you reflect for more than a moment on your many abilities as opposed to the things that you are unable to do. Words mean things. The ones that you use can enable your power (or someone else’s) or disable you (or someone else) into a position of weakness. Which will you choose?