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Student News

Disability Demystified

Learning from and with disability communities

Sara M. Acevedo December 8, 2017

When it comes to disability justice issues, my experience is that people tend to hide away from them, either because of lack of exposure, intolerance, fear, or perhaps self-identification and internalized shame.

To foster understanding and dialogue around these issues, my blog series is structured around the Q&A format. The questions and answers featured in this and future entries are drawn from my everyday life experiences and interactions with various constituents, both at CIIS and outside the University. In fact, these are actual questions people have posed to me throughout the years. 

Question: Don't you mean "people with disabilities"?

Answer: Various disability communities choose to identify in different ways and as a society, we rarely acknowledge or respect their preferences and choices around these cultural and political processes of self-identification.


Some people choose to identity according to a model known as "person-first language," for example, "Mary is a person with a disability." This is often the case for older generations of disability activists and scholars who struggled intently and collectively against the medico-social conflation of disability and pathology, and the subsequent abuse of disabled people in state institutions and in community-based settings.

This generation of activists and scholars played an instrumental role in organizing and protesting against ongoing discrimination, abuse, and dehumanizing practices perpetrated against disabled people housed in asylums and "mental" institutions in the United States (well into the 1980s).

The fight for the legitimation of humanizing disability-specific language arose from an imperative to reclaim the humanity of disabled people, who were (and still are) routinely treated as "living pathologies" as opposed to whole human beings with full citizenship rights.

A new perspective came into being with the advent of the social model of disability in the late 1970s. This model opposes the biomedical view and treatment of disabled bodies as fundamentally and inherently "deficient" and "abnormal," and instead focuses on the social, institutional, interpersonal, attitudinal, and material barriers that exclude disabled people from full participation in every aspect of social life.

According to this model, disability is socially constructed and treated as deficient and abnormal against a set of accepted parameters of rightful embodiment. These accepted parameters are most commonly exemplified by the epitome of the ideal Western citizen--that is, the white, male, middle-class, cisgender, heteronormative person.

Described as such, the ideal citizen fits both the cultural narrative of aesthetic normalcy and the economic expectation of high productivity.


Taking on this new approach, disabled advocates, many of them emerging from the U.S. autistic movement of the 1990s, chose to identify with the model currently known as identity-first language, for example, "Mary is autistic." They believe that identity-first language points to both social processes of disablement and to the belief that autism is a valid and valuable way of being in the world, as opposed to a tragic condition that needs a cure. I personally align with this view and reclaim my disabled identity with pride. I am autistic.

It is important to note here that I can relatively safely reclaim this identity today since I benefit from intersecting forms of lateral privilege. This privilege affords me the luxury of walking down the street without being targeted or abused. Many people (whether because of the nature of their disability, or because of their race or gender identity, or a combination of these factors) do not have access to this sense of autonomy or bodily integrity.

Some points to remember when addressing members of the disability community:

  • The various disability communities are rich in diversity of opinions and viewpoints; they do not represent one total, unified whole.
  • While part of a collective with shared political goals, each person's experience is situated and unique.
  • If you have a disabled friend and they say it is OK to use certain terminology, keep in mind that this does not indicate collective consensus or that said terminology is accepted across the board.
  • Language use remains contested within the various disability communities.
  • Assumptions are harmful. Be sure to always respect disabled people's own choices with regard to language use, regardless of what you think is "correct."
  • Most importantly, always avoid correcting someone when they self-identity as either "disabled" or "a person with a disability" as this is invasive and stigmatizing.

Sara M. Acevedo (Neurowitch) is an autistic mestiza, educator, and disability justice advocate born and raised in Colombia. Her background is in disability studies and activist anthropology. Sara is a doctoral candidate in the Anthropology and Social Change program at CIIS and adjunct faculty in the Bachelor of Arts Completion program.