A man in a grey jumper gesturing towards the panel.
Unlimited Artist Day 2016. Photo Credit Rachel Cherry.

Access: Is ‘disability’ a dirty word?

Is ‘Disability’ a Dirty Word?

Today, Unlimited’s Senior Producer Jo Verrent speaks at Evolve, a symposium looking at the use of identity and labels within the arts. Here, she gives her personal and professional take on language, disability and labels, exploring if ‘disability’ is seen as a dirty word…

To be honest, I’d rather talk about art and aesthetics than labels and language – it’s a minefield. Language can polarise, offend, divide, and yet language is power, language forms identity, language portrays politics. It’s also sometimes the basis for art.

At Unlimited, we unashamedly use the term ‘disabled artists’; for us, it’s a positive term: we are a commissions fund for disabled artists – that’s why we exist. We accept, however, that Unlimited is not for all disabled artists – some don’t want to join any programme that links to just one element of their identity, some don’t want to associate with the ‘disabled’ label at all, some prefer alternate descriptive terms – and all of that is fine. Are there artists who are happy to be described in this way? For our last call out we had over 250 applications across all art forms, so we assume they do. As for those who aren’t, we wouldn’t force anyone to take funding from us(!) and we are not the only way exceptional disabled artists can gain funds within the arts, it’s not an “either / or” situation, it’s a “both / and”.

Why do we use the language and labels we do? Here are five thoughts:

It’s political

The term ‘disabled people’, as opposed to ‘person with disabilities’ is a political term. It comes from the social model of disability that defines us as people with impairments who are disabled by the lack of access in the environments, systems and structures around us. We don’t call non-disabled people ‘people with abilities’.

It’s the preferred term in the UK for the vast majority of the user-led campaigning groups. It is linked to our battle for civil rights – and has been used since the 1970s. Some of us are old enough to remember Direct Action Network DAN and its slogan: ‘To boldly go where all others have gone before’ – chaining ourselves to buses or laying down in roads stopping traffic as part of protests which eventually saw disabled people gain some form of legal protection with the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995. Before then it was perfectly legal to discriminate against disabled people – and that’s only 22 years back.

Are politics still part of disability? Oh god, yes.

Disabled people are currently experiencing dramatic and disproportionate attacks through benefits and welfare cuts. Disability hate crime is on the increase. Media representation portrays us repeatedly as scroungers or heroes rather than humans. We are under attack and now more than ever there is a need to show that disability isn’t a simplistic ‘one size fits all’ issue, but something that is a part of the human condition.

If an organisation has signed up to the Social Model approach – seeing disabled people as equal members of society who meet and experience barriers – then ‘disabled person’ is the wording to use.

There is no right answer

When it comes to the language you choose, there is no perfect ‘right’ answer. You have to do your research, your own exploration – decide for yourself. The terms you use will depend on the work you do and the people you work with. There is no short cut.

Different people hate different words. ‘Special’ is one word I particularly hate – my access requirements are in no way ‘special’, they are essential, required, necessary. For me, calling them ‘special’ makes them seem a luxury, an add-on, an extra; not part of providing an equal playing field, not part of a legal requirement to make reasonable adjustments.


How disabled people are talked about is as important as the specific labels we use. Is everyone familiar with the term #inspirationporn? Where disabled people are held up for the inspiration of others? Where we are told that the only disability is a negative attitude? Check out Stella Young, who is sadly no longer with us – one of my favourite quotes of hers is “That quote, ‘the only disability in life is a bad attitude’, the reason that’s bullshit is… no amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp.” She argued for action, not words; action, not pity.

And talking of pity – have you heard about the rallying cry “piss on pity”? And another word that is equally contentious for some – Crip. Whether is super-crip or crip-cabarets, it’s a word that a number of disabled people are happy to use, reclaiming language and turning it on its head.

There is another perspective on language too, around Deaf culture and linguistics.

Complex? For me, it’s part of what makes this area of work so rich, so vital, so nuanced. But it doesn’t have to be that complex.

For audiences

Why not try describing what you are offering rather than who you think it’s for?

‘We have ramped access’, ‘we offer BSL interpretation’, ‘we have information in large print’ – great. You don’t have to add who you think it’s for, especially as most access solutions have a really wide range of people who use them.

This also helps people like my mum. She is 82 with a range of impairments and access needs, but she doesn’t define or identify with the term ‘disabled person’ – however she does like ramped access, provision of chairs, large print information, kneeling buses, concessionary prices and gin! You can’t always ‘spot us’ – 60% disabled people have non visible impairments. So one way to make labelling simpler is to label what you provide, not the people who use it.

For artists, its a choice.

You can make your choice about the type of language you use to describe yourself – and each option opens and shuts different doors. You can change your mind at any time, depending on the work, depending on the context.

At Unlimited we aren’t saying ‘all artists who could use the label, should’ – we are part of a tapestry richer than that.

Remove barriers

For me, the most important thing isn’t the language, it’s the action. If we focus on this, then we allow people choice around how they are defined, whilst providing the access they need to enable them to work equally with others.

Equality has to be the priority. If you don’t remove barriers, if you don’t provide access, you are discriminating against us, no matter what you prefer to call us!

Language and labels, for me personally, are about identity – finding the disability arts community when I was in my twenties was a life saver. Literally. It enabled me to redefine who I was: not someone ‘with something wrong’ but instead someone who was the equal of anyone else out there, providing my access needs were met. I’m proud to be a disabled person.

For me, disability isn’t a dirty word. I like the label, it fits me, it fits my politics and I’m lucky enough to be working in a role that fits both of those, with Unlimited.

I love diversity – and that means recognising that difference is what defines us. That includes differences in how we define ourselves and the words we use. So whilst I’m happy being defined in that way, I don’t assume everyone else should feel the same way. Choice is an essential aspect of equality and of diversity.