Never more so than in this issue has DiverCity’s claim – that words matter – become an indispensable imperative. Words matter, they have value, using them can have consequences. And when we talk about disability, the risk of running into the wrong terminology is much more frequent than we can imagine. It is necessary to clarify which terms it is best to use when talking about disability because words are important and using them correctly contributes to building a more inclusive society.
In 1980, the World Health Organization released the ICIDH – the International Classification of Impairment, Disabilities and Handicap – with the aim of clarifying terminology and analysing the consequences of impairments. Impairment: from a medical point of view, it is defined as any loss or abnormality of a physiological, anatomical or psychological structure or function. In the case of loss of a psychological capacity, however, we tend to speak of a ‘disorder’. For example, the lack of a limb from birth or due to an accident is an impairment, but the temporary loss of a linguistic, visual or hearing ability is also an impairment.
The terms disability and handicap should not be considered synonymous: Disability, in fact, is the limitation or loss of the ability to carry out an activity in the way or within the limits considered normal for a human being. It therefore represents the practical consequence of the impairment and, therefore, indicates the personal disadvantage that the disabled person experiences with regard to what they are or are not able to do. A handicap, on the other hand, is when a process of social disadvantage is created, experienced by a person following a disability or impairment that limits or prevents the fulfilment of a normal role for a given individual according to their age, sex and cultural and social factors. The handicap concerns the value attributed to an individual situation or experience when it deviates from the norm. To summarise, in the event that there is a disability, the disability is innate, while when it comes to a handicap, the disability is related to surrounding barriers and to the possibility of participating in the social dimension. In itself, therefore, a disability is not a handicap: it becomes one when it encounters obstacles and barriers that prevent a person from manifesting their full potential.
In 1997, after 17 years, the WHO updated these classifications with the ICIDH-2, to imbue the terms impairment, disability and handicap with positive meaning and to highlight the strong influence exerted by environmental and personal factors on a given disease. In the ICIDH-2, the terms impairment, disability and handicap were replaced by: functions and structures of the body, activity and participation. A big step towards inclusion since, even in the text of Italian Law 104, we still read: ‘A handicapped person is someone who has a physical, psychic or sensory impairment, that is stabilised or progressive, which causes learning difficulties, or relationship or work integration issues so as to determine a process of social disadvantage or marginalisation.’ The mistake one most frequently runs into is that the disability rather than the person is highlighted: a disabled individual is not their wheelchair or cane. To identify a person with the tool they use instead of their name or character is disrespectful. In Italian, putting the negation ‘non’ in front of a capacity is also incorrect. The deaf community, for example, declares itself to be ‘deaf’ rather than ‘non-hearing’ (non-udente), just as the blind define themselves as ‘blind’ rather than ‘non-seeing’ (non-vedente). The ‘non’ implies concern with a compassionate flavour. It is equally wrong to define a person as ‘normal’ because it implies that others are not; or ‘able-bodied’ because it implies that others are less or more ‘able’; or, again, ‘able’ implying that others are unable. Below is a table published some time ago on the Italian webacessibile.org portal. Using the correct terminology, without fuelling sanctimoniousness or wanting to appear politically correct, contributes to behaving more naturally towards people with disabilities. In short, it would be enough to simply call things by their name without using excessively emotional or sensationalist language (typical of journalism, for example, to capture attention and move readers).
To conclude: as educators, trainers, professionals and representatives of institutions, we should do much more to counter this linguistic habit, which easily transforms into a cultural and social barrier; it would be desirable to spread more respectful and correct culture and language, which will function as a model for each citizen. In the same way, mass media can and must play an important role in consolidating the culture of disability, but how? By offering less ‘TV of pain’ and fewer disabled people exhibited as caricatures. Not necessarily describing them as ‘unhappy’ or ‘heroic’. It would be nice, then, for the word uniqueness to be used much more frequently and perhaps instead of expressions such as ‘different’ or ‘special’, to emphasise the importance of each person as a unique, original and unrepeatable individual. And we must always remember that ‘Mr. Normal’ does not exist.