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What is a Disability?


“Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual, or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others”

(Article 1: Purpose, UN Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities, December 2006).

This description recognizes two aspects of disability:

A disability involves an impairment that may be noticeable to others or may be “invisible” to those who do not know the person well:

  • Physical, such as paralysis or multiple sclerosis.
  • Mental, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
  • Intellectual/developmental, such as Down syndrome.
  • Sensory, such as blindness or hard of hearing.
A disability results, in part, from various barriers that hinder full and effective participation in society. These barriers include:

  • Physical barriers, such as curbs without cutouts and non-accessible restrooms.
  • Communication barriers, such as lack of availability of large-print materials or of closed captioning of videos.
  • Attitudinal barriers that stereotype people with disabilities resulting in, for example, an employment rate of only about 40 percent for people who are blind or visually impaired.

Person-first vs. identity-first language about disability

People with disabilities are people, and it is better to talk with people than to talk about them. Only in getting to know people do we learn how each person describes or talks about themselves. One might prefer “a person with autism,” while someone else might prefer the term “autistic.” The former is considered “person first language,” and the latter “identity first.” While it is helpful to know this, it is even more helpful to know the person than it is to know their disability or their preferred descriptors.

Relationships are the most important part of being an effective advocate with persons who have disabilities

We have chosen to use “person-first language.” In churches and in general society, disability labels have been used pejoratively too often. This includes calling people “handicapped,” “wheelchair bound,” “lame,” or “schizo,” or even saying they “suffer” from a disability. To help our communities transition from viewing disability as some kind of illness or curse, person-first language helps us remember that people are first of all people. We are part of the diverse and complex tapestry that is the Christian church. However, we also appreciate and celebrate the work of disability advocates who champion identity-first language.

Everybody Belongs, Serving Together is a collaboration of RCA and CRCNA Disability Concerns, Christian Horizons, and Elim Christian Services.

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