Disability Services for Students is an advocacy body at the University of Saskatchewan that aims to provide accommodation for students who have learning and medical difficulties in an effort to remove barriers and improve access to higher education.
As discourse begins to shift on the limiting and perhaps problematic nature of the term “disability,” it may be time for DSS to start looking for another name.
What is wrong with the word disability?
First, the very nature of the word disabled is negative. Dis, a Latin prefix meaning “apart” or “away,” is used in English to indicate negation and difference. The word disability also assumes a normal, “able” opposite and centres the discussion of barriers faced by those with disabilities on difference.
Unfortunately, there is no real consensus on an alternative term. “Differently abled” gets used a lot, though it still places emphasis on difference. “Human variation” is another more inclusive alternative.
Secondly, disability is a social problem, not an individual one. In a world where people with disabilities do not face structural barriers to their success, they are not disabled. When a person in a wheelchair utilizes a ramp, they are enabled, not disabled. Barriers can be either physical, attitudinal or organizational.
A physical barrier would be an elevated door without a ramp for wheelchair access or a gymnasium exam with hundreds of distractions for those with ADHD.
Attitudinal barriers occur where disability is seen as a burden — for example, jealousy of someone being granted extra time on a final.
Organizational barriers occur when, in response to a need for accommodation, nothing is done — like a professor refusing to grant an extension or receive late assignments.
DSS is centred on empowering students in these situations, so shouldn’t their name reflect that over the students ability?
Lastly, many people who utilize the services that DSS offers do not identify as disabled. For example, many people who have anxiety and/or depression do not view themselves as “disabled,” despite being qualified for DSS accommodation. We’re asking students to take on disability as a label, so students who do not identify as such may not utilize services aimed at improving their learning outcomes.
At the U of S, students of varying ability face many different barriers to their success. Asserting the term “disability” as an official label can be harmful and counterproductive. DSS is an invaluable tool for taking down these barriers, but perhaps carrying a name that contributes to that reality is something worth considering.
Photo: Michaela DeMong