‘Disabled’ vs. ‘Having a Disability’: Debating the Power of Words

‘Disabled’ vs. ‘Having a Disability’: Debating the Power of Words

In the disability community, which is as diverse and broad as any other, there is a debate over terminology. I have seen this play out on my Twitter account and in other places. I have also seen some very strong feelings on all sides.

The muscular dystrophy community has entered this debate — and with good reason. There are almost 60 different types of muscular dystrophy, and symptoms can vary. Being an optimist, I focus on each individual’s abilities. Learning to power through disabilities by living creatively is my goal.

With this said, I want to be clear that I have some definite thoughts and preferences. In my opinion, there is a big difference between “being disabled” and “having a disability.” I would like to hear your thoughts on the subject.

Let me explain the dilemma. I worked for many years as a licensed clinical counselor and a life coach. The diversity of abilities and capabilities among humans is huge, but the variety of what I term disabilities is also broad. I am not talking here about the societal definition of disabled or the term used for medical or legal purposes. To make that clearer, let’s call what I am referring to “dis-abilities,” or “un-abilities.” Using this terminology, we begin to see the dilemma.

I am someone who has trouble with spatial tasks. I am always thankful for the development of GPS on our phones. Without this amazing tool, I would have some trouble getting from place to place in my travels. Because of this characteristic alone, would society say I’m disabled? Of course not. I have a dis-ability, but I am not disabled. I have many abilities that help me overcome the un-ability of not having great spatial skills.

Join our MD forums: an online community especially for patients with Muscular Atrophy.

Let’s work through a task: Make a list of your strengths and weaknesses. I will use myself as an example, and then I’ll come to some conclusions that seem clear to me, but you may disagree with.

First, think of the things you can’t do. For me, these include going up or down stairs and getting out of certain chairs. Walking is fairly easy, and on flat terrain I can walk a good mile or more, but I can’t run. I can swim, but it’s hard to get in and out of pools or oceans.

What things are on your list? To say you are a disabled individual implies that these things represent the totality of who you are as a person. I would find it hard to make such a totalizing statement about myself. I can balance all my abilities and dis-abilities as a complete person.

Take some time to think about your abilities. This is an important step. I’m especially good at math and science. I am focused and well-organized. I can develop plans and map out jobs and budgets over years. I can run an organization and lead others. And sometimes, when I’m lucky, I can write a little.

I’ve known people who can run up stairs, jump over walls, or swim for miles, but struggle with maintaining an organized life or a balanced budget. They don’t define themselves by their lack of skill. Yet, there are those in the disability community who would rather identify themselves as disabled rather than say they have a disability.

There is power in words. As a psychotherapist, I saw clearly that negative self-talk is the biggest dilemma we deal with when battling our own psyche. Do you want to say that despite being a person with so many skills, you consider yourself a disabled person? Or would you rather focus on the great strengths you bring to this world as an able person?

You have disabilities. I have disabilities. I had disabilities even before I started having symptoms of LGMD2L. But I can tell you this: I will never be disabled.

As I’ve said, these opinions of mine are not shared by all. In fact, some leaders in the disability community see it differently. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Next week, I’ll take this idea a step further by discussing how to attain positive thinking.


Note: Muscular Dystrophy News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Muscular Dystrophy News or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to muscular dystrophy.

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  1. Tracy Barhite says:

    That’s a great article Ralph. You are right, I too believe in the power of positive thinking. Having a disability is different than being disabled. I strive to continue to live my life to the best of my ability.

  2. Debra Love says:

    Thanks for the article and the encouragement! I have been labeled “disabled” for so long. I needed that encouragment!! THANKS!

  3. Michael says:

    I respect you a lot Ralph. I feel that the way you are living, is the definition of a successful life. Most people pity their “disabilities “. I’ve been guilty many times. I truly believe that we are all dealt a bad card, and it’s our job to turn that card into a winner, and then teach others with that card how to do the same. I’m not there yet, but you inspire me with your abilities. Keep being awesome!! Respect!

  4. Abdou says:

    Thank you Ralph for clarifying the usage of ‘having a dis-ability’ and ‘being disabled’. Some British and Canadian scholars and advocates use the term ‘disabled’ as meaning implicitely ‘by society’. Your explanation makes more sense.

    • Ralph Yaniz says:

      Thank you for your comment. I really used it less as a technical definition and more as a word technique to move us away from the societal prejudice around the word disability. Glad it helped you!

  5. Regina says:

    The word disabled stems from a specific historical context , as in disabled and proud of the independent life movement . It might be important to take up the historical analysis in order to understand all the nuances .

    • Ralph Yaniz says:

      Regina, thank you. Appreciate and I am always learning. What I’m looking at more here is also the meaning that has evolved in society and also of course the power of words and meaning. Ultimately we have the right to be called as we want and refer to self as preferred. This week my column will move away from this and focus on positive thinking.

  6. Dorothy Sconiers says:

    Good points. Few years ago I made a list and the things I can do quadrupled the can’t. I can’t go up stairs but I have a chair lift in my home to climb my stairs for me. Point being almost all the things lgmd2l has dealt me I find a way around them so far. Positive thinking is stronger to myself than this disease.

  7. Kat says:

    Interesting perspective. Where I live, I am classified as a Person With Disability, but due to the nature of my chronic illness, consider myself disabled. I have loads of skills and passions, but lack the ability to do any of them thanks to bone-crushing fatigue, severe brainfrog (i’m gonna leave that type there, it’s funny), and many other symptoms, such that typing a short paragraph demands a significant amount of effort.

    • Ralph Yaniz says:

      Kat, first, thank you so much for your reply. I understand fully what you are saying and our situations change constantly. Yesterday I fell and had some damage to my right shoulder. I am already leading a different life and will see how this can be healed to some extent. You describe Many issues you are dealing with and I hope you continue to strive to find things that give you passion.

  8. Jean-Louis Korpes says:

    Many people confuse deficiency and handicap. You can be protective of a deficiency (such as myopia) and not be considered disabled. However, this deficiency can put me in a situation of handicap when the environment does not help me to adapt the realization of my daily activities. Example: I do not need glasses when I take a shower, but when I study in class I need this auxiliary that compensates for my disability. Otherwise I am in situation of handicap.
    It is the interactions between the person (and his or her disability) and the environment that put the person in a situation of participation or on the contrary in situation of handicap.

    • Ralph Yaniz says:

      Jean-Louis, thank you for your comment and I really liked this. In some ways it makes it clear that in the right environment Any deficiencies can be eliminated. Like when I have my telephone open to GPS system I can reach any point On earth 🙂

  9. Danielle V Liptak says:

    Hey Ralph, I loved your article and all your writings! I personally disagree though, I have done a complete 180 about how I feel about my disability. I think it is the same as sexuality, race, and gender, and one should be proud of it. It has taken me over 15 years to be proud and stop hating myself so much I want others to be proud to speak up for those who are disabled to be seen as equal. Equal in life, love, families, work, and societies eyes. I want the world to know that being disabled is no longer a death sentence for me or anyone, that ‘where there is a will there is a way’.

    I can live my life to it’s fullest with my disability, it is the world that puts up barriers and prevents me from doing my best. I use to be very affected by words and have been working on being less so. I still get hurt by words but instead of feeling less than human I am now stronger because of them. I want people to look at me and not feel or tell me that they are “sorry” I am in my wheelchair. I want people to know that being a proud disabled woman doesn’t close doors but opens them and gives you a strength too, even if you are losing your muscle. I want people to look at disability and not be scared or worried that it will someday happen to them but to see that despite the initial shock I can do anything an abled person can maybe even better. I think that starts with accepting that saying “I am disabled” is a positive thing.

    • Ralph Yaniz says:

      Dani, thank you so much for your comment. I really believed this column would reverberate more strongly. But, I can say this, it has received more feedback than any other column I’ve done and it’s been almost exclusively positive. That surprised me a bit. I understand your point of view and I thought I’d hear more of this. The bottom line, though, is that I don’t think I’m saying anything different. That’s why I play that word game to show that the negativity of the word is what society has made it. The history of Words is interesting and sometimes the way people use it changes the intent. I always say I have a disability but I don’t mind saying I’m disabled, it’s just that when you’re talking with an audience that is biased and often not understanding what that means we have to understand that they are not hearing what you’re saying. Anyway, the beauty of all this is we can each be called as we desire. Or at least we can put that preference out there. 🙂

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