‘Dis’able is a ‘Mis’label

By Ellen S. Gibson

AgrAbility is a combination of two words: agriculture and ability. At Maine AgrAbility, we primarily work with farmers. We work with men and women who raise animals and vegetables to sell at the Farmers Market along with bread and butter, honey and eggs. They raise potatoes, pigs, sheep and cattle, make cheese, lavender sachets and salsa, roving, yarn and sweaters. The particular group of people we work with experience many challenges to their farming livelihood—traumatic brain injury, amputation, arthritis, fused discs, and loss of hearing—that give them another label: disability.

Not able?

The very structure of the word ‘disability’ gives it a negative connotation. Take the word apart to get ‘dis’ and ‘ability.’ ‘Dis’ is a prefix that negates the base word it is attached to: disability, disarm, disconnect, dishearten, dishonest, dislike, disobey. https://www.thefreedictionary.com/dis

AgrAbility staff find the word limiting and struggle with its negativity. We have tried other words, such as “other abled” though nothing as yet feels quite right. For some of the agencies we work with, “disability” is a legal term with specific meanings and funding streams.


One of our clients has a bumper sticker on her wheelchair-accessible van that says, “Attitudes are the real disability.” A person who is unable to relate to someone who is different—whether that is the color of her skin, his native language, her inability to walk, his inability to hear–could be described as having a cognitive disability. Call it rigidity of thought, inability to perceive difference, a block in neural capacity. Call it unconscious bias.

We make assumptions based on past experiences. We rely on generalizations. Sometimes those generalizations fall into the category of stereotypes, or labels, and may be grossly erroneous and harmful. Labeling diminishes others by pigeonholing them, denying their individual character and abilities.

Can we see this in ourselves and how we process information? Often, we cannot.


Creating a new normal

  • Learn through trainings, podcasts, etc. There’s a world of information online. Some resources to check out follow.
  • Listen to someone who has a disability. Abilities come in all sizes and shapes of individuals.
  • Have you ever been temporarily disabled? A friend who broke her leg was outraged at how difficult it was to get around. She couldn’t even get into the door to see her doctor! What obstacles did you encounter?
  • Universal Design principles combat architectural discrimination, such as when there’s no way to participate because a person who can’t walk can’t get there from here: into the garden or the playground, into the concert, up the stairs.


Maine AgrAbility website, Universal design.  https://extension.umaine.edu/agrability/solutions-and-resources/.

Wonderful, thought-provoking article.: http://www.meadowsoklahoma.com/_blog/The_Meadows_Blog/post/disability-bias/

This fascinating read from the American Bar Association is followed by questions to ask yourself about the extent of your own implicit disability biases. https://www.americanbar.org/groups/diversity/disabilityrights/resources/implicit_bias/