Shaping Narratives: The Impact of Language on Disability Perceptions

Michele Mashburn
4 min readDec 29, 2023

In the vast tapestry of human experiences, it’s essential to recognize and appreciate the diversity that makes each individual unique. This celebration of diversity, however, faces challenges when language is wielded without careful consideration. Recently, an incident involving the Santa Clara County Public Health Department highlighted the potential repercussions of inappropriate language use, as they likened cerebral palsy to a serious illness rather than acknowledging it as a disability. This instance provides a poignant example of how language, a powerful tool reflective of societal attitudes, can unintentionally perpetuate bias and hinder efforts towards inclusivity.

This incident serves as an important reminder of the importance of language in shaping our perceptions of disabilities. Categorizing cerebral palsy as a serious illness instead of acknowledging it as an impairment of muscular coordination contributes to the marginalization of individuals with disabilities. By framing the conversation around cerebral palsy through the lens of an illness, we risk perpetuating the historical tendency to view disabilities as deficits rather than diverse expressions of human capability.

Cerebral palsy (CP) is a broad term encompassing a group of disorders affecting an individual’s movement. This permanent lifelong condition is typically associated with brain damage, occurring either during pregnancy or shortly after birth. Movement issues arise from problems in the brain, not damaged muscles or nerves. People with CP face challenges related to movement, posture, and may contend with associated conditions like intellectual disabilities, seizures, vision or hearing problems, speech difficulties, changes in the spine, or joint issues. Throughout their lives, individuals with CP require various supports and medical services, including occupational and physical therapy, to enhance their capabilities and quality of life. For more in-depth information on CP, refer to the Key Facts by the Cerebral Palsy Foundation.

While I agree with Santa Clara County’s emphasis on the need for services and supports, crucial for families with a child born with a disability, my disagreement arises from the characterization of CP as an illness. It’s essential to acknowledge that language impacts not only public opinion but also contributes to policy decisions, resource allocation, and societal expectations. Individuals with CP and other disabilities often face barriers to inclusion, and the language we use can either reinforce these barriers or contribute to breaking them down. Medical services are available, but attitudes can block progress toward full inclusion and equity of a person with CP or any disability.

Calling CP an illness perpetuates outdated paradigms, such as the Medical Model of Disability that places impairments as a problem located in an individual. Despite the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors adopting a Disability Inclusion and Equity pledge during the pandemic, and establishing the Office of Disability Affairs with the goal of intentional actions toward equitable access, opportunity, and inclusion for people with visible and hidden disabilities (June 22, 2021 Board Referral 106589), it is surprising to witness the use of problematic and stigmatizing language, despite these positive and crucial intentions set forth by the Board.

In fostering a more inclusive society, we must be intentional in our language use. Let’s shift our narrative to one that explicitly acknowledges the unique abilities and strengths of individuals with CP. Embracing inclusive language is not just a matter of political correctness; it’s a fundamental step towards fostering a society that values and appreciates the rich diversity of its members. It is a continuation of the intentions set by the Board of Supervisors in 2021 that has not yet gained much traction because of the structural and attitudinal barriers that exist in this county and many other counties in the United States.

This incident should prompt us to engage in open conversations about language, bias, and the impact they have on our perceptions of disabilities. By challenging existing norms and promoting language that is respectful and inclusive, we can contribute to a more compassionate and equitable society where individuals of all abilities are recognized and celebrated. It’s a collective responsibility to choose our words thoughtfully, recognizing their potential to either perpetuate bias or inspire positive change.

In conclusion, language plays a pivotal role in shaping our perceptions, and biased language can have lasting effects, reinforcing stereotypes, and sustaining discriminatory attitudes. When a disability is labeled as an illness or a flaw in a child, viewed merely as something to be fixed or healed, it can adversely impact their well-being. It is imperative to shift our perspective and view disability as an integral part of the human experience, not a burden to be borne solely by those diagnosed and their families. To truly progress, society must actively deconstruct barriers and create an environment where every person can thrive. Disability doesn’t define a person; it’s merely one aspect of their identity.

A group of toys on a blue background with clouds. There is a red X over the word illness. “Is your baby seeing a lot of doctors for a serous illness, like cerebral palsy? California Children’s Services provides physical and occupational therapy, and other services, to children who are medically eligible.” Santa Clara County Public Health
A red X is added over the word “illness” for emphasis from the image used on the December 14, 2023 post on Santa Clara County Public Health Department’s Facebook page. Image description (also embedded): A group of toys on a blue background with clouds. There is a red X over the word illness. “Is your baby seeing a lot of doctors for a serous illness, like cerebral palsy? California Children’s Services provides physical and occupational therapy, and other services, to children who are medically eligible.” Santa Clara County Public Health

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Michele Mashburn

Disability Advocate, Educator, & Activist * Cat Lover * Opinions are mine