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Reluctance to be seen as “disabled”

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Last updated 30th September, 2014 (part update 16th March 2022).

Disability as a legal concept

Some people who stammer may be turned off using the Equality Act because they do not want to be seen as “disabled”.

However, “disability” in the Equality Act is a legal concept. It is just a matter of whether you fulfil a particular legal definition. You do not have to say that you would consider yourself disabled in a wider sense.

Also, “disability” in the Equality Act goes beyond what many people would regard as the normal sense of the word. For example it can include a back problem if it lasts for more than a year. It is just a statutory definition to determine who does and doesn’t have rights under the Equality Act.

If you think about it this way, you may be happy to rely on the Equality Act whether you think of yourself as disabled in a broader sense or not. However to rely on the Equality Act you do have to say you are “disabled” within the meaning of the statute. That’s just the way it is.

Disability in a broader sense

Like many people, I don’t like the word “disabled”. It can have negative implications such as powerlessness, incapability, and being “different”.

However, this is an issue for disabled people in general. Disabled people are unhappy with these implications. People who stammer can, as part of the wider disability movement, work to move society beyond stereotypical views of “disability”. “Stammering” itself may have similar negative connotations, and it seems artificial for those of us who stammer to try and distance our own condition and its negative stereotypes from disability issues in general.

Disability awareness has some way to go, but I think it is growing – for example through the work of disability charities (including STAMMA/British Stammering Association and 50 Million Voices), through the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and through employers and staff learning more about disability to comply with the Equality Act. The word “disabled” is not a fortunate one. However, I would hope that through greater awareness and familiarity, society can start to see the word as quite different from the sum of its parts – “dis-abled”. It is at best highly misleading to generalise disabled people as “unable” or “less able”.

Social model

A more empowering view of disability, often supported by disability organisations, is the social model. This takes the view that disability is created by the physical, organisational and attitudinal structure of society. For example, wheelchair users could get about the built environment perfectly well if society had not designed so many of its buildings with stairs as the main way of going up and down. With adequate lifts and ramps in buildings, and improved design of buses and trains etc, wheelchair users need not be disabled. They may have an “impairment” in being unable to walk, but it is the stairs and general lack of consideration for their requirements that “disable” them and perhaps limit their playing a full role in society. An important role of the Equality Act and campaigning organisations is to “enable” disabled people through encouraging new structures and attitudes.

Similarly people who stammer may be ‘disabled’ by people’s attitudes towards stammering – e.g. by a listener’s being impatient, or making stereotypical assumptions that the person is slow-thinking, for example. Someone who stammers may also be disabled by the arrangements to access a particular service, eg if the person to phone up to get it, and even more so if their speech on the phone has to be understood by a computer. In the social model, stammering is not a “disability” (it is an “impairment”), but people who stammer can be “disabled” by attitudes and structures. The aim, through the Equality Act and other means, is to remove such disabling factors.

I think it is now generally accepted that often it is not only the external attitudes and structures that make the disability: this is discussed in an important 2022 research paper on stammering and the social model: Social model: new research paper. The fact remains though that much of what disables people is these attitudes and structures.

On this basis, a person may be “disabled” however able they are, and even if their stammer is only minor. For example, if you are turned down for a job because of a mild stammer, you are still being “disabled” by the employer’s attitude.

“I see stammering as a disability because people may judge you on it – it can affect how they see you; and also because it does get in the way. If we say: “I’m not disabled, I’m perfectly able”, what does that say about how we view other ‘disabled people’?”

I’m not “disabled” because…

I’ve come across various reasons why some (or even many) people who stammer say they are unwilling to see themselves as disabled. Whether an individual who stammers chooses to see themselves as “disabled” is a matter for that individual – though I would ask someone who does not see themselves as disabled to check whether that is based on any stereotypical views of other “disabled people”. Disagreement is not confined to stammering – I understand that a significant proportion of deaf people do not consider themselves “disabled”. In any event, what I want to do now is run through some of the reasons, often interlinked, which people who stammer give for not being “disabled” and outline some counter-arguments:

1. “I’m normal”

I know that I didn’t use to see myself as “disabled”. I was just a “normal” person who had difficulty getting my words out. Disabled people were “different” from normal.

When I started thinking about this though, I realised that people with other disabilities (wheelchair users, blind people etc) are basically normal people too, just with a particular impairment. Many of them would not want to be considered “different”. Many would see themselves as a normal person who cannot walk, see or hear etc.

This kind of “them” and “us” thinking – which we may not realise we are doing – is the foundation for much discrimination. In a way it is rather insulting to disabled people not to want to be seen as “disabled” on this ground.

(Paradoxically, much as I wanted to see myself as “normal”, a very healing experience for me was to realise in a personal development course that I had viewed myself as fundamentally different from other people because of my stammer; whereas really I had similar issues to any other human being. Eg there are perfectly fluent people who may be uncomfortable at parties and tend to stand by the wall, reluctant to join groups.)

2. Negative connotations

Some people who stammer may object to being seen as “disabled” because they believe this is saying there is something wrong with them, or that they are somehow “lesser” than other people, or deserving of sympathy – or more generally that they will be tarred by negative connotations of the term. “Disability” is not normally seen as a positive concept. “Dis-abled” sounds like the opposite of “able”, and there are doubtless still negative stereotypes which many people associate with the word.

I can certainly see this argument. However, disabled people in general are unhappy with these negative connotations. People who stammer are no different in this respect. “Disability” is not a great term but we are stuck with it for the time being. The Equality Act and disability organisations are working to overcome these negative attitudes of society. People who stammer face problems because of negative stereotypes of “stammering”. Our efforts to correct these must surely be seen as a part of the efforts of people with long-term conditions (disabilities) to overcome negative stereotyping.

3. “I’m perfectly able”

A person who stammers may say: “I can communicate perfectly well – it just takes a little longer sometimes and you need to be willing to stick with it and listen. Any so-called disability I have is due to your attitude that there is something wrong here.”

But again people with other “disabilities” might say they are perfectly able, they often just have difficulty in a particular area. With appropriate infrastructure a person in a wheelchair, for example, may well live a fuller life than do many people who stammer. Being “disabled” does not need to mean you can’t do things or lead a full life.

Also, under the social model (above) people who stammer may be disabled by other people’s attitude to their stammer. This can happen however able the person who stammers, and however minor the stammer.

4. “Only people with quite a severe stammer are genuinely ‘disabled’ by it”

Another view is: “Well some people who stammer are genuinely disabled by their speech – with me it maybe just takes somewhat longer to ask for something in a shop.”

This is a possible view of disability, and perhaps a widely held one. However I would refer again to what I say in 3 above. Having a full life is perfectly consistent with having a disability. Maybe this view is based on an unduly limited view of what disabled people generally can potentially do.

And again under the social model, you do not need a severe stammer to face disabling attitudes from people.

5. “It limits me to see myself as disabled”

Some people suggest that viewing themselves as ‘disabled’ will discourage them from going out and living a full life.

I would very much encourage people not to see themselves as defined by their stammer, or by being “disabled”. I’m not saying that is easy to do – it can be very tough having a stammer! I do believe though that, to a significant extent, how far your stammer limits you does depend on your own attitude. You can go out into speaking situations and talk, even though you are stammering, or you can decide not to do that.

Whatever attitude you choose to have though, seeing yourself as “disabled” does not mean you have to use your stammer as an excuse not to do things. It only tends to do that if you buy into the old negative stereotypes of disability. And we do not need to do that.


20th anniversary of stammeringlaw, 1999-2019