It is quite common for people to use the word “normal” to describe persons without disabilities. You probably do it as well. When you do, however, you automatically imply that a person with a disability is not normal, or even “abnormal,” which is not a very friendly way of describing someone. But why do people do this? Are people with disabilities really not normal?
To start, what does normal even mean? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines normal as “according with, constituting, or not deviating from a norm, rule, or principle.” But, who decides what this norm is? Is it people with blond hair and blue eyes, managers with well-paying jobs, married couples with children? Everyone has different interests, different looks and different personalities. So, is “normal” even the same for everyone then?
Certainly, some things might be more common or more usual than others, but very often what is normal depends on your perspective. For persons with mobility issues, it is not strange to use a cane, a wheelchair, or some other assistive device. Similarly, for people who have been deaf their entire lives, it would be very odd to suddenly be able to hear. While able-bodied persons might consider a disability to be anomalous or abnormal, for persons with disabilities, the disability is just a (normal) part of who they are.
As such, being referred to as “not normal” upsets people, and for good reasons. Several weeks ago, for instance, Ian Duncan Smith, the British Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, received severe criticism when he compared people with disabilities to “normal, non-disabled people.” He may not have meant it as an insult, but his remarks angered people. By calling able-bodied people normal, Smith implicitly stated that people with disabilities are somehow not normal and consequently, that there is something wrong with them. Too often, words such as “not normal” are used in a derogatory fashion, so for a public figure, a member of parliament nonetheless, to choose these words to distinguish between persons with and without disabilities can definitely be considered inappropriate.
In the Urban Dictionary, the top definition for the word “normal” is: “normal is nothing but a word made up by society to single out and attack those who are different.” When used to describe people, it is a term that includes some people, while automatically excluding others. People with disabilities cannot help that they deviate from the norm, however and therefore many of them believe that there is no reason at all to use the words “normal” and “abnormal” to distinguish between people. As Mik Scarlet, who uses a wheelchair, explains in an article on the BBC website: “I meet so many young disabled people who say they just want to be normal, that’s all they want, and actually I think anybody who strives for that has missed the point of life, really. For me it is much better to see yourself as not normal and different because that is just more interesting.”
So, are people with disabilities normal? Looking at it from a purely linguistic standpoint, then no, most likely they are not. But think about it for a little while. Sure, you could say, “oh that person has only one leg, they’re not normal!”, but what about people with two legs? Just put two people with two legs next to each other, a blonde and a brunette, and decide which one of them has the normal hair color. Would you know? Probably not. The lesson here being, the next time you want to use the word “normal” to describe a person, just remember, it’s all relative.
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