Why we don’t like the word “disability”

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This article is inspired by Joelle Kelly, mother of three children with Down Syndrome. She recently wrote about why she does not like the word “disability” on her Facebook page. Sure enough her message was quickly shared on The Mighty website.


“We all have strengths, weaknesses, differing abilities – Joelle Kelly”


Her views and approach resonate with us.  Over 15 years ago we developed and commenced evaluations of a post-secondary school literacy and technology program for young adults who differ in their intellectual abilities. This Program – Latch-On – has been transforming the lives of young adults (and their families too) ever since.


The reason why the Program has been so successful (award-winning as a matter of fact) is because it has been designed to celebrate the abilities of the young adults participating in the Program – not disabilities.

You might have noticed it already if you have watched our introduction video (Welcome to Latch-On). We used an animation to make the “dis” disappear from “ability”.


“I don’t use the D-word, I think you know that. I wish far more people would drop it. It doesn’t need replacing, it just needs dropping. We’re all individuals of one world, we should be individuals of one society and especially the term ‘the disabled’ only plays a negative role in promoting the independence of the individual, whether that’s mind, whether that’s body or whatever.” Sir Phillip Craven (Disabilitynow.org.uk)


Joelle’s belief in the “continuum of ability”


Joelle talks about the “continuum of ability”:


“You see, we all lie somewhere on that continuum. It always depends on what it is you are measuring. (…) Please help me to break down the myths that surround Down syndrome.”


We too, work hard on breaking those myths.

The Latch-On Program is based on 4 core modules (1 module per semester). And interestingly enough the modules follow a continuum too.

From “Starting a Journey of Self-Discovery” to “Taking on the World” the Program has been carefully crafted and evaluated over the years to ensure it is adaptable to the needs and interests of our diverse range of students, enabling opportunities for continuation along the lifelong literacy journey, creating confident and independent community members.


Here is what she writes and does not like about the word “disability”:


  1. It implies an “us versus them” mentality. If you hear of someone who has a “disability,” you may immediately think of that person as being different from you. You may even begin to believe all those who have disabilities are the same. This can create a kind of distance or disconnection between people.
  2. Saying my daughter has a disability implies she has a deficit of ability. I would love to hear how you think this applies to Josee. She is funny, charming, cheeky and bright. She walks, talks, eats with utensils and plays with her siblings and pets. Yes, on paper she may have delays in certain areas, but I don’t believe her cognitive, speech or physical abilities are all that she is. She is extremely empathic, sensing when you are sad or in distress. Her emotional intelligence is amazing. She has a wicked sense of humor and tons of character. Her delays are shadowed by her abilities in other areas — areas that perhaps society doesn’t value as much as others.


Let’s add to Joelle’s list. Here are some of the reasons why we focus on ability rather than “disability”:


  1. Our research has shown that, contrary to myths related to plateaux of learning, cognitive development in individuals with Down syndrome continues into adolescence and beyond.(Moni & Jobling)
  2. And even, the young adult years may be the optimal time to focus on literacy development
  3. Fewer abilities? Not true. Our philosophy is that “Everyone is a learner with ideas worth communicating”. Our 15 years of research demonstrates it, and our amazing Partners prove it too as Latch-On students improve and acquire new literacy skills.
  4. We all have diverse abilities and differing learning styles. The truth is, there are few education opportunities available after high school that are specifically tailored and designed for young people with varying levels of intellectual abilities. These young adults just need an education program that is designed suit their needs, interests and aspirations, so they can blossom and improve their skills.
  5. Fact: Students enrolling in the Latch-On program have very clear ideas about what they want to achieve in terms of literacy.
  6. “All the world is a laboratory to the inquiring mind” . Every day at Latch-On, learners, educators and even visitors are asked, on a voluntary basis, to sit in the Hot Seat and talk to the group about events, experiences, items and photos that have meaning in their lives.  This activity creates terrific energy within the group, and focuses on developing speaking confidence, oral skills and active listening skills.   Learners are extremely inquisitive in terms of questions they ask to the person in the “Hot Seat”.
  7. “Literacy is the means through which every man, woman and child can realise his or her full potential” Kofi Annan
  8. “Literacy for all”. Lifelong learning for all young people is achievable, no matter the level of intellectual ability.


Do you have something to add to the list too?

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