INCLUDEnyc Voices

Rethinking language and disability: My evening with disability rights lawyer Haben Girma

Written by guest blogger Ariam Alula

On the night of the lecture "Disability & Innovation: The Universal Benefits of Inclusion" presented by Haben Girma at Fordham University in the Bronx, I learned the importance of using appropriate language when referring to individuals with disabilities.  

As the first person who is deaf-blind to graduate from Harvard Law, Haben's work as a self- and legal advocate earned her the title of White House Champion of Change from the 44th U.S. President Barack Obama in 2015. She has also been featured in Forbes Magazine’s 30 Under 30.

During Haben's opening remarks, she spoke about a journey that her mother, my mother, my friend's mother — sitting next to me in the audience — and many other mothers from Eritrea made during a heightened time of migration during the Horn of the African nation’s 30-year fight for independence.

As we heard our stories unveiled on the podium by Haben whose first name, like ours, (Ariam and Miriam, depending on pronunciation) is indistinguishably Eritrean and a marker of our hybrid identities as Americans and Eritreans in the diaspora, the sister-friend and I nodded in recognition.

Another moment we shared was hearing Haben say, “In our country, disabilities are seen as a curse.”

This reverberated a key factor that I, as a diaspora kid and sibling of a person with disabilities, have noticed in our community: language.

In the article "Producing Positive Disability Stories: A Brief Guide" posted on Haben’s website, the author challenges the way individuals without disabilities refer to those with disabilities in everyday life.

The semantics of words such as "special needs” and “differently-abled,” or what Haben called "linguistics gymnastics," perpetuate the belief that individuals with disabilities are separate from non-disabled individuals and this kind of language prevents inclusion.

In the article she goes on to say, "We plainly state other human characteristics. We write, ‘She is a girl,’ rather than, ‘She has a special gender.’ The words we use to discuss disability should similarly be straightforward."

Using person-first language, I think, is a happy medium when referring to individuals with disabilities. An example reflecting this belief is how I tell others about my brother. Rather than stating Daniel is autistic, which will introduce his main disability before introducing himself.

I prefer to say Daniel is my brother and uses words, phrases and gestures to communicate. Daniel is a man-boy who has autism.