Disabled at Vanderbilt: Why invoking disability is never funny

It is disrespectful to use disabilities in figurative language


Bruce Brookshire

Claire Barnett | Multimedia Director | [email protected]

Claire Barnett

I was walking through Rand a few weeks ago when I overheard a student say, “I am so ADHD – I lose everything! But my mom never got me tested.”

This statements seems innocent enough, right? But what about this one: “I’m basically a Native American – I have such high cheekbones! But my family doesn’t actually know our ancestry.”

You most likely have a problem with the second statement. People can’t just claim to belong to an ethnicity – especially one that been historically oppressed. Even if you think you might have Native American ancestry, it is irresponsible (and insulting to actual Native American people) to claim that identity simply based upon a hunch.

The same is true of disability, and particularly invisible disabilities. It is careless to casually claim these identities, and can ultimately harm the people who truly have them. Additionally, it is disrespectful to use disabilities in figurative language (metaphor, hyperbole, etc.). Even if you’re joking, talking about disability in these ways can have a damaging effect.

Here are a few common ways that people invoke disabilities (particularly invisible ones):

“He’s super OCD. He keeps all his binders perfectly color-coded.”

“That dessert is so sugary – it’ll probably give me diabetes.”

“Didn’t you see/hear that? Are you blind/deaf?”

“I can’t believe the professor moved up the exam! This is retarded.”

“I’m too tired to read this right now, I’m basically dyslexic.”

“I can’t believe she did that! She’s crazy.”

Hopefully you can see how these colloquialisms minimize the challenges faced by individuals with disabilities. Sometimes, though, this problem becomes much more serious than inconsiderate language.

If you’ve been keeping up with the college admissions scam, you probably read that some of the parents attempted to receive fraudulent disability diagnoses for their children. Their goal was to get extra time on college entrance exams. This is not only dishonest – it discredits the legitimate claim that people with learning disabilities have to receive extra time. It leads the general public to be skeptical when an individual who is not visibly disabled asks for a reasonable accommodation.

Every person with an invisible disability has experienced others’ skepticism and doubt at some point. It feels like you’re being accused of lying to get yourself ahead, even though that’s far from the truth. As a result, many people with invisible disabilities try to avoid asking for accommodations, even when they need them. This also feeds a negative cycle of shame about having a disability.

Chances are, you’ve never sought a fake diagnosis to game the college testing system – but you probably have used phrases that minimize disability, causing unintentional damage. I know I have, without even knowing about the harm those words could cause. So my goal going forward is to be more inclusive and respectful by considering my language more carefully. Hopefully, you’ll do the same.