By Amy Saffell
I’ve always been someone who thinks that words matter. How you refer to someone or something isn’t just hollow of meaning; it conveys how you think about what you're speaking about, and, conversely, it can influence who you’re talking to about your subject matter. For this reason, the now commonly used people-first language comes naturally to me, emphasizing the person rather than the disability. In my life, I’ve seen a positive change in the way people think about others with disabilities by learning to focus on the person rather than the disability. It’s only been more recently that I’ve realized another way that people with disabilities may be unintentionally using words that devalue themselves.
It wasn’t until adulthood that I heard people with disabilities refer to themselves as “crips” or “gimps.” Growing up, I was always just Amy, or at least “the girl in the chair,” which appropriately uses people-first language even if it is recognizing my disability, so hearing these less flattering words always rubbed me the wrong way. “Why would someone want to be known by such degrading terms,” I thought. Most of the people referring to themselves in this way were people who had acquired their disabilities, and I figured that maybe I just didn’t understand their point of view since I was born with spina bifida. It wasn’t until a year or two ago that I heard someone with spina bifida referred to as a “bif,” first by a chair user with a different disability and then by someone with spina bifida. I was even more shocked since it was becoming even more personal. A “bif” just isn’t how a vibrant woman with a disability such as myself should be referred to. I grew up around a lot of other people with disabilities, including those with spina bifida, and I recently asked one of my friends from growing up if she had ever heard of this whole “bif” phenomenon, and she most certainly had not and was taken aback just as I was.
We, as women with disabilities, work hard to have other people see us just as capable as everyone else in society, so why are we doing the very thing that we don’t want other people to do, highlighting our disabilities in a negative way? We would shudder if someone who doesn’t have a disability referred to us in one of those ways, so why should we as women with disabilities disrespect ourselves in the same way? It’s great to be proud of having a disability, what you have overcome, and the characteristics that having a disability has instilled in you, but there are much better ways of showing your pride than labeling yourself. People can already see your disability; let your accomplishments shine instead.
For some, using these terms may convey what we actually feel about ourselves, that our disabilities are front and center in our lives in a negative way. After all, we believe of ourselves what we tell ourselves. Our inner thoughts and insecurities become what we truly feel about ourselves if we let it. If you call yourself a “crip,” “gimp,” or “bif,” you may believe that’s who you are, but you are much more. It’s time to change. You are so much more than your disability. You are strong and capable. You have hopes and dreams waiting to be realized when you believe that you’re worthy enough to achieve them.
Humor is an important part of part of having a disability, and while some may use these terms as an attempt at humor, be careful not to confuse humor with self-deprecation. That’s not to say that there aren’t times we feel “gimpy” when our disabilities try to get the best of us. In a world set up for someone standing on two feet, it happens. Everyone has days when their disability takes more of the center stage than we’d like. Actress Teal Shearer humorously describes these moments in her web series “My Gimpy Life,” but these moments make up our days. They don’t make up who we truly are.
Just by changing the way we refer to ourselves, we can have a profound effect on society and that way that people with disabilities are treated. People mirror what they see and hear, particularly if they don’t have any experience with, in this case, people with disabilities. If we don’t respect ourselves as capable women with disabilities and speak about ourselves in positive ways, how do we expect others to do the same? Newly injured people are framing their self-image based on what they see and hear from others with disabilities around them. How do you want them to feel about their self-worth? It starts with you and me.
So let’s start respecting ourselves. I’ll start. My name is Amy. I love spending time with my friends, writing, music, and exercising. I’m proud to be a confident woman with a disability. How about you?