‘Positive’ words paint unrealistic picture of disabled community

Straits Times Forum, 1 April 2014 (print edition)

THE Disabled People’s Association agrees with Dr William Wan in asking for greater sensitivity (“Use words with care”; last Friday). Words can not only hurt but also shape mindsets and perpetuate stereotypes.

We should also be aware of the downsides of using words and phrases like “brave”, “inspiration”, “extraordinary”, “overcoming one’s disability” and other supposedly positive terms to describe people with disabilities.

Such sentiments are usually expressed by the non-disabled.

Do people with disabilities really regard themselves as courageous, inspiring, or examples for others to emulate? Is it possible that many of them reject such labels and perceptions as patronising?

Most persons with disabilities see themselves as ordinary people leading ordinary lives. They do not feel they are “suffering from” their disabilities; these are simply a natural part of them, much like their ethnicity, blood type and eye colour. Nor do they think they are doing anything out of the norm.

Contrary to popular belief, a blind person or wheelchair user does not live his life “bravely”; a deaf person – like me – does not “overcome” communication barriers even if he does well at work; an academically successful student with autism is not more deserving of being hailed as a role model than a non-disabled student who does equally well.

Such accolades, though well-intended, reinforce the idea that persons with disabilities are overachievers who defy great odds to succeed in life. This is certainly a heartwarming notion, but it also paints a misleading view of the situation.

The disabled community, as a whole, is held back by mainstream society because of physical, institutional and attitudinal barriers around them.

What persons with disabilities want, and need, is not to be discriminated against because of their disabilities, but to have equal rights and fair treatment in all aspects of life.

These, and a realistic picture of the community, would help more to improve their lives.

Alvan Yap
Advocacy Executive
Disabled People’s Association

Two ST writers have responded here and here.


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