The trouble with labels

wheelchairbasketballTim Rushby-Smith explores the multifaceted nature of the term ‘disability’…

Settling into a new area (in my case, in a new country) can be an intimidating process, especially if you stand out from the crowd. Having moved to a small Australian town, I feel much more conspicuous when I’m out shopping than I ever did in the hustle and bustle of east London.

It’s not that I crave anonymity. Indeed, I was delighted when another wheelchair user approached me in the car park of a nearby  shopping mall to invite me along to training with the local wheelchair basketball team.

Sharing experiences

Sport offers a great opportunity to meet people locally and share experiences. This is invaluable when faced with bewildering new systems of healthcare provision, driving licenses, parking permits and tax entitlements.  One of the other players lives in the next town along the coast from us, and seeing as I have a tetraplegic friend who runs the local surf shop there (he broke his neck in a surfing accident), I thought I would ask if they knew each other.

The response surprised me. Instead of a flat-out “no” my new acquaintance went on to say that he wasn’t part of that whole “disability social thing”.

I have had people make the assumption that, because I’m in a wheelchair, I am friends with every other disabled person on the planet, but this time I was asking because I had a friend who lived in the same town. Yes, he has a disability, but that was not the motivation for my question.


The more I thought about it, the more his response troubled me. Is it OK for someone with a disability to express a dislike of having anything to do with disabled people…? While playing wheelchair basketball… With a bunch of disabled people?

The truth is we are not ‘one community’. ‘Disabled’ is a broad and often unsatisfactory label. It defines us only as different from the rest of the population. What do I have in common with someone who is deaf? It may be only that we are excluded from participation in some facets of ‘normal’ life. It’s like putting a shark and a frog in the desert and saying they are basically the same animal.

I can understand any desire to shake off such a tag. But to attempt to do so by loudly eschewing social contact with other disabled people is to buy into some kind of pecking order. It says: “I hate labels, unless it is me
doing the labelling.”

Such a position can be socially damaging to all of us, whether we have a disability or not.

Enable, July/August 2014

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