Disability….Not! “DIS-ABILITY"….Yes!




L.T. Force, Ph.D.


For most of my professional career I have been in the: “helping profession”. For years, I worked for State Government - in Public Sector Institutions. I was exposed to: "persons with...." across “the age span”, as well as, across “the developmental - cognition span”. Some of my clients were addressing issues surrounding the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, while others were navigating their world with other forms of cognitive impairment. Today, I work in an academic arena, continuing with my interest in adult development and disability. What has changed?

Today, across the academic arena and corporate-settings nationwide there is a strong voice given to the “DEI” platform. The themes associated with the concerns of: “diversity, equity and inclusion” have now taken center-stage….as they should! Workplace discussions and trainings are highlighting the importance of a heightened awareness and practice as it relates to issues of: “diversity, equity and inclusion”. Interesting discussions and exchanges are percolating to the surface - as to further defining what are the parameters associated with a “DEI” platform. The answer for me - is clear. I see all “Protected Classes” being included under the guidelines of:“DEI”. The definition of: “Protected Classes”:


US federal law protects individuals from discrimination or harassment based on the following nine protected classes: sex, race, age, disability, color, creed, national origin, religion, or genetic information (added in 2008).[clarification needed] Many state laws also give certain protected groups special protection against harassment and discrimination, as do many employer policies. Although it is not required by federal law, state law and employer policies may also protect employees from harassment or discrimination based on marital status or sexual orientation.[1] The following characteristics are "protected" by United States federal anti-discrimination law:

(Source: Wikipedia)


As you can see - the range of “Protected Classes” supported by Federal Law - provides a wide variety of status and concerns. Across time, there has been an evolution in the definition and categories associated with the “Protected Classes”. As a society, we have become more sensitive to labels, categories and diagnosis - as indicators of identifying individuals. I remember when I entered the field of the study of psychology….40 + years ago, one would find the diagnosis of: “neurosis and psychosis” as psychological conditions. Today, we no longer reference the term “neurosis” but rather now replace it with the term: “anxiety disorder”. In addition, we no longer reference the term: “Mental Retardation”. Overtime, we have replaced that term with: “Developmental Disability” and now currently: “Intellectual Disability”. In group residential settings we have moved from referring to individuals as: "patients, or residents, or clients to now....consumers". We have also now attempted to move away from the nomenclature and stigma of: “Mental Illness” and replaced the reference with: “Mental Health and/or Mental Wellness”.

On all levels - a good move - a good transition that moves us forward….”capturing the dignity of the person and moving away from derogatory labels”. However, there is one label that we haven’t changed - and it is a main label that is used widely - and that is the term: “Disability”.

When I first started to think about that point - I thought maybe we should advocate for a replacement term to the word: “Disability”. (I remember one time when I was working for a large state agency: “The Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities (OMRDD)”. I was in the elevator of the Central Office - located in Albany, NY. As the elevator door was closing - I looked up and the door had blocked part of the sign on the wall - and I was reading: “The Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Abilities”. I started to think….that was probably what it should be called. As of this writing - a number of years ago the name of the agency was changed to: “The Office of Persons with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD)”. Good move…. in part of the transition - but unfortunately the term: “Disability” is still included in the agency title).

As I began to give this more thought, i.e., replacing the word: “Disability” with different words or terms that would signify: “empowerment, abilities and strength” - I realized this would be a herculean effort that may not be fruitful. And the reason, why? The reason is, yes, the term “Disability” is embedded in our vocabulary - but more importantly - it is also embedded in our Federal Laws, our State Laws and our Local Municipal Laws. To try to replace that term…. could be a lifetime of effort. So, my recommendation - let the word “Disability” stay, however, change the way the word is interpreted….disrupt the meaning of it….change it! So, instead of the word: “Disability” surrounded with all of the negative connotations….let’s reframe the word to: “DIS-ABILITY” where the

“DIS” means Designated, Individualized, Strengths”. Thereby, reframing the focus and placing it on the strengths and abilities of the person - and therefore, "taking a look at the whole person" and not a view from a “categorical diagnostic perspective”. My recommendation: replace the word:

“Disability”. And replace the word with a strength-based perspective of the individual:


And remember….it’s never about the diagnosis….it’s always about the person.