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I'm-pairment - Sir Philip Craven and disability

Hotch Potch | 09:00 UK time, Monday, 11 June 2012

English dictionaries

We've always had interesting feedback about political correctness, 'gone mad' or otherwise.

Language is something our readers and listeners care strongly about. And if they don't care about it, they're passionate that they don't care about it.

President of the Paralympic movement, Sir Philip Craven MBE, says that he "detests" the word 'disabled' in the latest podcast from Ouch!.

He's said how much he loathes the D-word elsewhere recently too. In an Evening Standard interview, he puts it succinctly:

"Don't use terminology that gives a negative impression. If you need to talk about the blind, visually impaired, deaf or wheelchair users, no problem at all. What the blind person needs is completely different. What the deaf person needs is completely different. So get rid of that D word. I'd far sooner the word impairment was used."

So, impairment. It's an awkward-sounding word and it's more of a noun than an adjective. Or is it more square and not so rounded? It feels like it doesn't fit quite so smoothly into the English language as the D-word does: "I'm impairment?" "I've got an impairment?" "My daughter is impairmented"?

The more academic minded in the disability community have been using 'impairment' for donkeys years now, and some of us trying to find a positive identity may have flirted with using it. Sir Philip Craven grudgingly uses the I-word if he has to, it seems, but he thinks the D-word makes you think of broken useless machinery and hates using it anywhere at all. He detests it, remember?

So, why 'impairment'? Why's that different to 'disabled'? What does it mean?

Deep breaths now. Craven takes the word 'impairment' from what is known as the Social Model of Disability, though maybe we should be calling it 'collective responsibility' or 'being civilised'. It is a set of ideas and language which has helped crystallise what disability rights should mean these past few decades. The language, however, has never really fallen into everyday usage. Professors, social workers, politicians and some bloggers use impairment and refer to 'the social model' a lot, and it's there in national and international law. Others won't know the term but agree with the principle that society has a duty of care.

To sum up, here's the difference between impairment and disabled a la social model of disability:

• An impairment is the thing that's wrong with you. So, for instance, if you have cerebral palsy, that's your impairment. It's not a disability, see the next point.

• The word 'disabled' refers to a much wider idea that society is there to make your life accessible, bearable and liveable; so you might be a 'disabled person' because there are steps going up into a polling station, for instance. In this example, it's the absence of a ramp that disables you, it's not your cerebral palsy's fault, it's the council's fault for not having considered your needs. And indeed you could sue them, such is the recognition that you are not at fault just for having cerebral palsy. So your 'disability' is the stuff in the world that conspires against good accessibility. Loosely speaking, society is responsible for your needs.

Just for fun, arf, let's look at the 'medical model'. It's the opposite of the 'social model'. Here, if you were unable to get up into a polling station due to having mobility difficulties, well, it's a case of "poor little Katie. She can't vote because she has cerebral palsy" - it would be accepted that you can't vote. And that would be that. "It wasn't us that gave you cerebral palsy. Go and get yourself cured, then you'll be able to vote." Apply the same idea to getting into restaurants, employment, etc.

Usually people are nicer than this though and the point is far more subtle.

Let's recap. Sir Philip hates people defining themselves as disabled. They may well have impairments, indeed it's these impairments which make them eligible for the Paralympics, so he can't exactly detest those. He defines his sporting clan as Paralympic athletes. A positive label unlike, say, disabled athletes ... which some would argue is an oxymoron. (Can we say moron?)

Others do like to use the word 'disabled' however, because they feel like they should own it rather than have it used against them.

If you can put it better, please do in the comments below. Can anyone get it down to a paragraph ... maybe even a haiku?

Just in: This month's Disability Now has an article by Mike Shamash who has written about how he thinks the social model needs to change.

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