Using the Word “Disability”

2015-1018 Toy Like Me

Excerpt of Article by Rebecca Atkinson | BBC Ouch

After running a campaign to urge toy manufacturers to include disabled characters in their collections, Rebecca Atkinson started to wonder if the word “disability” might also need a positive makeover.

Cripple, deaf-mute and lame all fell out of favour a long time ago and are now considered insults. “Handicapped” was gradually replaced with “disabled.” Attitudes change and as a consequence so does language.

Recently there has been a shift towards person-first language and now “people with disabilities” is often more popular in general usage over its predecessor “disabled people”. I have noticed too that people in the disability community sometimes like to emphasise the “ability” part of the word with hyphens or capital letters: dis-ability or disAbility.

I started an online campaign urging the toy industry to include positive representation for the 150 million children worldwide with disabilities. I began making-over toys by marrying princesses with guide dogs or wheelchairs and giving hearing aids to fairies to create a fun and colourful disability aesthetic. I took photos of my creations and posted them on the web under the name Toy Like Me.

If we don’t use the term disabled, though, what do we use to describe someone who has an impairment to set them apart from the majority?

Reading posts from my followers, many of whom are parents of disabled children, I noticed the words and phrases they use: special needs, differently-able, different, ability not disability, inclusive. It seemed many people were choosing not to use the d-word, or were trying to divorce the “dis” from the ability.

The definition of “dis” in one English dictionary is to “have a primitive, negative or reversing force”. To discredit. To disengage. And in recent parlance “diss”, with an extra s, has been popularised as an abbreviation of disrespect.

“Dis” is not a thing that many people want prefixed on their child or themselves. It is, after all, inherently negative.

One adult follower wrote to me in outrage after I posted an image of a toy with a facial birthmark under the banner “dolls with disabilities”.

“I am not disabled,” she wrote, as if the term was highly offensive. “I have a port wine stain and although it’s nice that you create a doll with a birthmark, I think it’s a poor choice of words…”

“A disability is “a physical or mental handicap, especially one that prevents a person from living a full, normal life or from holding a gainful job,” she continued. “I have a normal life. I am a teacher. I think you should seriously reconsider the use of the word.”

I read her message and agree you should be able to choose your own identifying label but I wasn’t sure how to take her rejection of disability. She sees it as separate from the idea of living a “normal life” or having a “gainful job”. But, looking at the many disabled people I know and have worked with, they do have these things.

Perhaps a facial disfigurement or birthmark isn’t a disability but, for many people, constant stares and negative remarks are disabling, and I feel there is still a need for children growing up with these differences to see themselves reflected in the toy box to help build self-esteem.

So I began to search for a catch-all term that could be used to describe disability but also include those who wanted dolls with glasses, eye patches, birthmarks and scars – differences that do not always fit under the d-word banner.

To read the complete article, click here.


Click here to read another Beyond Adversity post.

Thanks to Rebecca Atkinson for writing the article; BBC OUCH for committing its resources to publishing the article; Google for helping me find the article; and all the people who, directly or indirectly, made it possible to include the picture, video, and text in this post.


    1. Dawn, “limitations” sound good because everybody has some limitations whether they are injured or not. Some people may have more limitations than others, but we are all human. Thank you for taking the time to share your comment. ~ Scott

  1. I have been diagnosed with 13 ailments over the last 7 years, I joke that I’m a gimp. It is my way of coping. I have never thought of being labeled disabled a negative thing! For me the “D” word is my badge of honor, I have learned to fight that much harder. It sometimes takes longer to adapt then I would like. I am just coming out of a long bout as a recluse. My Parkinson’s had progressed and it took a long time to stabilize my meds. So if you are one of the people I have not called for a while or had lunch with give me a call. I have never stopped caring…

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