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Thorn, disability, trauma, and the words we use

Thorn, disability, trauma, and the words we use published on 5 Comments on Thorn, disability, trauma, and the words we use

Really enjoyed this piece, “I’m Not a Person with a Disability. I’m an Disabled Person“, by Lisa Egan. Worth reading the whole thing. A few pointed excerpts:

As a person with a mobility impairment, I am disabled by steps, stairs, escalators, being denied computer access as I can’t write by hand, inaccessible housing, and so on. To me, a flight of stairs without a lift as an alternative is the equivalent of right-clicking me and selecting “disable Lisa.”


I hated my body when I was not allowed on school trips or when I was left in the classroom on my own while my classmates were doing something more fun. I’d get left in the classroom on my own with a math textbook — anything is more fun than that.

Once I learned about the social model, I realized that my body wasn’t the problem at all. The reason I spent so much time in pain was because I’d get half a paracetamol every 4 hours for multiple broken bones.

There was no need for me to be in pain; effective painkillers existed by the 1980s. I just wasn’t given any. Denying someone needed pain meds is an attitudinal barrier making their life needlessly difficult.


“Disabled” is the best word in the world for describing the barriers I confront and no non-disabled person has the right to try and take that from me.

To be clear, she points out that she’s not saying “person with a disability” is Wrong or Bad across the board. Just that “disabled person” is the better term for her.

So, okay, the personal angle: I have depression.

Here, too, medication exists. Brain chemistry is more finicky than pain, so it took a couple years of trying meds that didn’t make a dent in mine, but finally, wham, ERIN used BUPROPION! It’s super effective!

And “person with a disability” feels more accurate on my end. (Or, better, “person with depression,” because a nonspecific “disability” makes people think of the physical ones first.)

Thing is, with mental health conditions, the context and perception is different. Outside observers can have a hard time distinguishing between the symptoms and your natural emotions. This is a Problem.

Saying “a depressed person” sounds like “a sad person,” and that’s the wrong idea! Even when it was untreated, even when I’ve been smack in the middle of a serious meltdown, it doesn’t feel like normal sadness. From the inside you can tell when things don’t line up with your actual emotions.

Seriously, I remember trying to articulate this to a therapist in seventh grade. Didn’t have the vocabulary for it at all, so the phrase I used was “I think [I’m crying because] there’s something wrong with my tear ducts.” And even this trained mental-health professional interpreted it as “oh, you’re in denial because you’re embarrassed to admit how upset you are.”

Nnnnnnnnnope. Insert your favorite “you tried” graphic here.

It’s not a facet of your personality. You can’t treat it by approaching it like a character trait that you have to work on. (Makes about as much sense as seeing someone with a backpack full of weights, and telling them to take some weight off by…exercising.) It’s a separate thing. A distinct noun.

The word choice has to make that clearer, not more muddled.

And, listen, I’m not gonna bite anyone’s head off if you use “depressed” in a context where it’s clear what you’re talking about. Right now I work with a group that does disability services, and that category in the database is “Disabled.” That’s fine.

But if I’m referring to myself, it’s gonna be “person with depression.” The implications there line up best with the ones I want to get across.

So let’s bring this around to Thorn.

The backstory in a nutshell: Sir Thorn killed a dragon. Hooray! But in the process he was badly injured, and the aftereffects linger to this day. Boo, hiss.

Physically, he has notable burn scarring on his left arm. And that’s after the best healing available in his magical fantasy country.

Mentally, he has what in our universe would be called PTSD. That’s been brought pretty well under control by treatment too, some of it recognizable in our world (therapy!), some of it not so much (magically soulbonded cat).

You can see some of the low-key effects in the strip so far. Nothing dramatic, no moments where he just aggressively cannot deal. (…Yet.)

It helps that his world has a pretty good understanding of trauma overall. You’d be amazed what a difference that makes. There’s this one IRL study, which I cannot for the life of me find now, where someone got to the survivors of a disaster (boat sinking? earthquake?) and gave them all a one-page flier about common trauma symptoms and effects. Followed up a year later, and the PTSD in the group was way lower — less common, less severe — than average.

More understanding, less stigma, good consequences all around. When Thorn doesn’t want to talk about his backstory, that’s out of a sense of privacy and boundaries, not because he’s been shamed into never talking at all. When he faces something that might play into his triggers, his teammates know it’s a reasonable risk, and will matter-of-factly offer to run interference if he needs it.

(You would think there would be more fictional dragonslayers who, in the aftermath, have triggers related to fire….)

Most of the time, these days, he’s functioning at a good level. Not a lot of active impairment. Most of the time, the people around him are not selecting “disable Thorn.”


that is kind of what the dragon did, you know?

Thorn’s conditions are the result of a specific event. One that was even more actively aggressive than “failing to provide treatment” or “designing things that don’t accommodate how his body works.” They were inflicted on him, and that’s an important part of how he thinks of them, and how he would want other people to understand them.

The phrase “person with a disability” is timeless, eternally-present. “Disabled” is a past-tense verb, better for implying that this had a starting point, that it’s part of the texture of his personal history.

And even in those moments when it’s not actively affecting him — after he’s had years of good support, and is generally in a pretty healthy place — the history is still significant.

Kind of like how you would keep calling yourself “educated” long after you’re out of school (and, let’s face it, have forgotten a lot of the specifics). The experience was still a big part of shaping who you are today, and that’s what you’re trying to get across.

tl;dr Thorn would prefer calling himself “disabled.”

…in English translation, anyway. His native language isn’t necessarily going to break down these terms and their implications in the same way. But that’s a layer deeper than I’m gonna dig in a single post.

Readers, any of you involved in disability advocacy in a non-English language, and/or have opinions about the politics of the lingo it uses? Drop a comment, let me know.

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I’m no professional advocate, but here’s yet another perspective. I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. At the time, I embraced the “disabled” label, because now I had a name for what was wrong with me and what had made my childhood so difficult. I felt that “person with a disability” wasn’t timeless at all–instead, it wasn’t weighty enough, like it described my ASD as something I could put on and take off at will, when the truth was it had influenced all my thoughts and actions since birth. It was who I was, it was not something that was “with” me.

In the five-and-a-bit years since then, I’ve gotten better at moderating my atypical behaviors, and I’ve found communities where the people around me are more understanding and care that I perceive and process the world in ways that they don’t. In the process, I’ve come to feel that “disabled” no longer describes me. To use Egan’s metaphor, I don’t think people right-click on me. I’m still not a “person with a disability,” but for a different reason: now I believe that I am at least as “able” as anyone who isn’t autistic. So now I think of myself as “differently abled,” a term I hated when I thought of myself as “disabled.”

It was who I was, it was not something that was “with” me.

I hear this a lot with regard to autism-spectrum people…so, heh, it’s pretty much the exact opposite of how people with depression/bipolar/PTSD/etc want to be understood.

And another reason I like the “with…” phrasing is that, even though depression et al can’t be switched off at will, they can be wrestled down. At which point, a lot of people will start saying “oh, you’re doing so much better now — that means you don’t need to keep taking the medication, right?” When, noooo, the meds are what’s managing the disability. It’s still with you, even when the circumstances are not actively disabling.

“Differently abled” as a term has so much baggage, I wouldn’t bet on it ever making a comeback =( But this goes along with why “neuroatypical” is taking off. Same idea of “not better or worse, just different from the norm,” but a more precise focus, and not so much with the uncomfortable connotations.

Well, I’m late, but I want to add my polish two cents^^’ I’ll try to do crash course from my observations^^.
Medical word is “niepełnosprawny” which means “not fully capable” [in literal translation, normally in dictionaries it’s: “disabled, handicapped or invalid”]. Mainly it’s normal, neutral word. Sometimes they add adjetive to point in which category this disability is.
Later it’s “inwalida” or “inwalidka” [first for male, second for female], nowandays it’s mostly neutral using word. Some places had it in names and there is polish version of “your argument is invalid” – “twój argument jest inwalidą”].
Next is “kaleka” which is negative word. Orignally it was used as normal disable or crippled person, but it can be used as insult when someone is clumsy, can’t do things right or is helpless in life [“kaleka życiowa” – “loser”,”failure”].
When it comes to mental health, it’s more complicated, mainly because of insults.
“Niepełnosprawny umysłowo” [“not fully mentally capable”] is used for persons, who can’t make decisions or take responsibility for their actions [e.x. People with Down Syndrome]. It’s used as insult with politicians. Officially name for intellectual development problems is “niepełnosprawność intelektualna” [Intellectual disability].
“Chory umysłowo” [“mentally ill”] is mostly negative, used as insult for “crazy, psycho person”,”not normal”. In law, this phrase is used to describe specific group of people.
And now I’m feel like this topic is too much for me so I will end here orz. Sorry^^’.

I’m upset I’ve been reading this comic for this long and didn’t know this blog post existed!

As someone who has mental illness and ADHD, I personally like to say “living with a disability” or “living with [name of disability]”. It’s a subtle statement for me that I am not my illness.

I’m fine with saying “disabled”, because as that piece from Lisa Egan said, living like this doesn’t just go away if we pretend it’s not there. But if other people with disabilities don’t like being labeled as such, we should respect it. (Except for legal jargon, in which “person with disabilities” is an exact term that one probably shouldn’t opt-out of.)

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