Could You Please Stop Insisting that People Have to Use Person First Language

There are so many of those lists explaining how to speak to disabled people respectfully. They are generally well intentioned and some of them are even really good. There is however an almost universal element that I wish would be retired. They inevitably include a statement that disabled people should ALWAYS be referred to using Person First Language (see an example here).

I have issues with the command to always use Person First Language for two reasons.

1. Person First Language is culturally geographic. It is only consider PC in North America. Interestingly if you were to read the same article in English speaking Europe they would insist that you say “disabled person”.
2. Despite it being widely considered PC in North America, a growing number of disabled people (myself included, see here and here) are intentionally abandoning it.

This isn’t about completely switching the script. I’m not suggesting that we ban Person First Language or that people shouldn’t use it (so don’t attack me in the comments). I’m saying that realistically person first language is not always appropriate (from a purely cultural sensitivity angle) and demanding that it be used anyway is a tad clueless.

The insistence  that people MUST use People First Language is also just disrespectful, not only to how many people are coming to self-identify but also completely ignoring that the reasons that we do so might actually be valid. Ignoring the voices and preferences of actual disabled people just reinforces the idea that we are incapable of determining what is best for us.

Whenever I come across the Person First edict on a “How to Be Respectful about”. Disability” list. I always wish it had been replaced with something along the lines of,

How to Deal with Disability Labels

Language around disability is complicated and there is currently no universally accepted term. Even the terms that are considered most acceptable like people with disabilities (in North America) and disabled people (in the UK) are not universally accepted by people in those locations. In order to be respectful it is usually inoffensive to default to the most acceptable term based on your location. However, if a person expresses an alternate preference, it is extremely rude and disrespectful to insist that they conform to the dominant preference. Best practice would be to utilize the term that the individual prefers.

I repeat. It is extremely rude and disrespectful to impose labels on people who have clearly expressed an alternate preference.

I wish this concept wasn’t so hard to understand.

 

 

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Why Are You Complaining? Some People Actually Feel That Way: A Critique of Me Before You

Warning: This post includes comprehensive spoilers for the book Me Before You, a book that deals with disability and assisted suicide. It also deals with sexual assault.

 

It has taken me months to get all the way through Jojo Moyes’ 2012 novel Me Before You. This protrated reading can be explained by two things. I’m a PhD student and don’t have a lot of free time for reading anything that isn’t directly related to my studies and the fact that this book made me feel violently ill. I hated it, well before I got to the ending. The only reason I finished it is because the movie adaptation is coming out next month and I felt the need to thoroughly explain why it is so problematic and why I find the excitement over the movie adaptation so troubling.

I only became aware of the existence of this book after the trailer for the film adaptation began making the rounds of Facebook, always accompanied with captions like “I can’t wait to see this” or “This is going to give you all the feels!!”. Basically all of these posts were coming from nondisabled people. The trailer (which gives away basically the entire plot) already troubled me (see below).

It’s a film about disability and assisted suicide which is troubling enough but is made worse by the fact that it uses a nondisabled actor (Sam Claflin of the Hunger Games franchise) in the role of a quadriplegic (to read more about how this is problematic see what I’ve written about cripping up here, here, and here). Now I’m sure this casting decision was made because after an exhaustive casting search, the producers could find no self-respecting quadriplegic actor willing to be associated with this bullshit and nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that they definitely didn’t even look at quadriplegic actors *sarcasm*.

Before I get into my thoughts on the book, I want to deal with what I expect is the most common rebuttal to disabled people criticizing problematic media portrayals of disability, particularly around assisted dying.

A disabled person will identify problematic themes in the media portrayal and almost immediately upon voicing those concerns, someone will pop up and say “But, there are disabled people who actually feel that way, so who are you to criticize?”

Here’s the thing, there is a big difference between actual human people having feelings about their actual lives and experiences of disability (which I’m not here to criticize) and a fictionalized account written by someone who isn’t disabled and which heavily romanticizes very problematic stereotypes about disability (which I am absolutely here to criticize). I am also here to criticize the fact that the nondisabled media heavily over-represents disability discourses that fit into ableist stereotypes, which makes it harder for the viewer to differentiate between the feelings of individuals and the experiences and feelings of all disabled people. So if you find yourself asking that question, also ask whether you are hearing other opinions and whether those opinions are coming from actual disabled people or are they the fictionalized imaginings of nondisabled people.

Me Before You falls into the latter category and is rife with deeply problematic themes which include.

  • The constant reinforcement of negative feelings towards the experience of disability from  nondisabled characters with rare and problematic exceptions.
  • What sort of negative life experiences from which someone can move on and live a good life.
  • The constant juxtaposition of disability vs. nondisability
  • Horrible representations of disability and sexuality.
  • What the outcomes after the death of the disabled character meant for the other characters.
  • The impact of how fictionalized accounts of negative experiences of disability have on the disabled community

In brief Me Before You tells the story of Louisa Clarke who is recently unemployed and whose family relies on her having an income. She takes a job of a companion to the wealthy Will Traynor who was paralyzed after being hit by a motorcycle. Unknown to Louisa, she has been hired primarily for suicide watch as Will’s parents are concerned that he will make a second attempt at suicide. Also unknown to Louisa is that Will intends to seek physician assisted suicide after six months (his parents are aware of this and have agreed to assist him in going to where it can be legally acquired). After Louisa eventually discovers Will’s intentions, she decides to use the remainder of the six months convincing him to live. He on the other hand is both intent on dying but convincing Louisa that she is not living up to her full potential. During this period, they fall in love but ultimately Will decides to go through with his decision to die. He leaves money to Louisa so that she can be free of the financial insecurity which led her to work for him in the first place and live her life to the fullest.

When I was still in early stages of reading the book two things struck me. First the repeated disgust expressed by Louisa for assisting in the toileting needs of disabled people. I know it’s something that many people would feel genuinely uncomfortable with but it is reiterated so frequently in the first three chapters of the book as to leave the reader with the distinct impression that disabled people and their needs are disgusting.

The other thing that struck me and genuinely made me furious is that Will’s mother does not tell Louisa that she is being hired for suicide watch. It is heavily implied and even if I didn’t know the outcome of the novel before I started reading it, it is readily identifiable to the reader but not so much in a way that is clear to Louisa. This is really something a person needs to know. Not only to do their job effectively but also so that they can be aware that the person they work with might self-harm or commit suicide. This is for the benefit of the employee so that they can make an informed decision about whether or not they want to put themselves in a work environment that has the very real potential to be traumatic.

Instead the fact that Louisa doesn’t know just adds tension for the reader and the inevitable and completely avoidable drama that ensues when Louisa overhears Mrs. Traynor tell Will’s sister about his intention to seek assisted suicide, which is when Louisa realizes not only why she’s been hired but that Will is going to die regardless. Needless to say, she doesn’t take it well.

Manufactured drama around something life and death with the potential to be harmful to the person who doesn’t know and reasonably should, is deeply problematic. While someone shouldn’t feel compelled to publicize their desire to seek assisted suicide or the fact that they attempted suicide when the former request was denied. There are people who do need to know, not only to do their jobs properly but to protect themselves emotionally. The Traynor’s also hide this fact from Nathan, who take care of Will’s personal and medical needs and this is presented as normal and acceptable.

When it comes to the book explaining why Will wants to die, he actually has very little to say on the matter beyond that it is his choice and that he can no longer find value in his existence as it does not match what he used to be able to do. He also (completely reasonably) chafes at the negative reactions he gets from other people which range from everyone thinking, they know how to treat his medical condition to just being generally uncomfortable in his presence.

The main source of rationalization for why he should want to die actually comes from other people who are usually (with one exception of a guy on a message board) not disabled themselves going on about how if “they were like that, they’d want to die too”. even Nathan, Will’s care aide says it.

Louisa (because let’s be clear this book is about her, not Will) is constantly confronted by people who reinforce the idea that it is better to be dead than disabled.

This trend of people being either just uncomfortable with or actively horrified by disability is almost universal. Generally the best reactions will gets are paternalistic and pitying. Though admittedly Louisa’s parents’ don’t support him dying. Though that seems more a reaction to the effect his death will have on their daughter than him. Her mother compares Will to the only other disabled character in the book, Louisa’s grandfather, who unlike Will is described as not having the ability to make decisions for himself. The comparison is weak.

There is only one character who treats Will like a human being from the beginning. She appears only briefly while Louisa and Will attend the wedding of his ex-girlfriend. The tokenism of her complete comfort with and acceptance of Will is so stark that I would classify her as a magical crip whisperer. It makes her seem extraordinary when in reality the otherwise totality of others’ discomfort with him should feel contrived.

Sure social discomfort with disability is widespread but it’s a bit unbelievable that in 2 1/2 years, you only interact with one person who isn’t at least initially uncomfortable. Of course the magical crip whisperer is a former politician who worked with disabled people, because who else is there to not be horrified when faced with a guy in a wheelchair?

Beyond Will, there are no other real disabled voices in the novel. Louisa’s grandfather is primarily presented as loved but ultimately a burden. The only other time the reader hears from other disabled people is when Louisa seeks advice on a message board online. While most of those messages are described as being positive and defending the idea of living a valuable life with disability, they are not featured but merely mentioned. Instead Moyes chooses to feature a post from someone who agrees with Will. Ultimately the voices of alternative opinions are acknowledged but given little to no direct attention even though, it is suggested that there are more defenders of living with disability that people who want to die.

Instead Louisa uses the message board to get suggestions about how to cheer Will up and find accessible outing ideas. This is admirable but a lost opportunity to show that there are other disabled voices.

In the midst of Will’s quest for death, the reader is also presented with trauma from Louisa’s past. The book portrays her as underachieving and Will is constantly trying to get her to aspire to more. The book initially sets up that Louisa lives in the shadow of her sister who was was labeled the smart one from childhood and thus the one expected to succeed.

This however, wasn’t enough reason for Louisa to not feel good enough. Instead Moyes decided that she needed a traumatic past to further reinforce it. So it is eventually revealed that several years ago Louisa was raped–minor break for feminist rant… Seriously, why do women have to be assaulted for character development? Particularly when the book has already provided a violence free sibling rivalry and childhood socialization–It is after this assault that Louisa stops aspiring to take risks and do things like travel.

This traumatic past also allows for Louisa to “overcome” the effects of her rape with Will’s help including a scene blatantly ripping off Good Will Hunting where Will repeatedly tells Louisa that it isn’t her fault.

It’s bad enough that rape was used as character development but it is made worse when it is clearly something Louisa is meant to get past with Will’s assistance but Will isn’t supposed to learn to live with being paralyzed. It clearly sets up the idea that people can and should be expected to come to terms with certain kinds of trauma but not others.

It also throws a wrench in the idea that the book puts a lot of importance on autonomous choice. The book only really cares about personal choice for Will but has no problem with Will, pushing, prodding and bullying Louisa out of her shell and making value judgements about how she lives her life from her choices in employment to her boyfriend. Even though Louisa by all accounts loved her job working in a cafe (the job she had prior to working with Will) it isn’t good enough and is presented as evidence that she isn’t living life to the fullest. Ultimately giving the impression that there can be no full life after disability.

This is repeatedly reinforced by both the stark difference between the physicality of Will and Louisa’s boyfriend Patrick and how Will was before his accident. If people are going to continue to produce stories about people becoming disabled (whether they seek death or learn to live life happily with their disability). just once I’d like that person to be average. They never are though and Will Traynor is no different. He was active, played sports and was very athletic. This for some reason makes his paralysis more tragic as if he lost more and this is why he is unable to come to terms with being quadriplegic.

Then there is Patrick who is in peak physical shape. He’s a personal trainer who’s obsessed with running. It’s as if he exists solely to be Will’s oposite. He certainly has basically no other personality, other than to say offensive things about disabled people and have awkward passionless sex with Louisa and generally be an ass hole.

Which brings us to the representation of disability and sexuality. I was hoping considering the cringeworthy sex Louisa was having with Patrick, that once she and Will fell in love there would at least be a good sex scene between the two of them (this is supposed to be a romance novel after all, I have expectations). This did not happen. Even though the sex between Luisa and Patrick is clearly meant to be seen as unfulfilling and there is one instance where the fact that disabled people have sex is acknowledged (though it’s by Louisa defending Will’s manhood).

As blogger Pretentious Best Friend puts it in their review of the film. to be released in June.

What I find more distressing, though, is how the film blatantly uses Will’s disability as a shorthand for chastity fetishism.  Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey have popularized chastity fetishism by substituting sexual attraction with attraction to danger, which leads to problematic romanticism of physical and emotional abuse.  Me Before You takes the opposite tactic, by making Will so nonthreatening that he can’t even be conceived of as a sexual being.  His relationship with Louisa has no chance of sexual culmination (at least according to the logic of the film), so Louisa is free of the usual pressures placed upon women in relationships and therefore can pursue Will without being concerned that she will be expected to consummate their love.  This is exemplified by the fact that the film’s most romantic scenes (and a few comic ones) are of Louisa acting as a caretaker, and that Louisa doesn’t even bother to break up with her current monogamous boyfriend as she spends more and more time with Will.  Again, I understand the appeal of a platonic, nonsexualized romance, but it cannot come at the expense of the dignity to either party of the relationship, and Will’s portrayal deprives dignity to an entire class of disabled persons.

The book suggests the possibility of sex between Louisa and Will and even briefly addresses the ethical concerns of a relationship between a disabled person and their carer but nothing comes of it beyond a couple of kisses. When Louisa suggests moving their relationship in that direction Will vetoes the idea because,

I don’t want you to be tied to me, to my hospital appointments, to the restrictions on my life. I don’t want you to miss out on all the things someone else could give you. And, selfishly, I don’t want you to look at me one day and feel even the tiniest bit of regret or pity that—…You have no idea how this would play out. You have no idea how you’re going to feel even six months from now. And I don’t want to look at you every day, to see you naked, to watch you wandering around the annex in your crazy dresses and not… not be able to do what I want with you. Oh, Clark, if you had any idea what I want to do to you right now. And I… I can’t live with that knowledge. I can’t. It’s not who I am. I can’t be the kind of man who just… accepts.” (pp. 325-326)

He completely rejects that her feelings for him could be genuine and forgoes the possibility of a sexual encounter that he desires because it wouldn’t be how it was before his accident, assuming that this could never be as good. It is again an example where only his opinion matters. While he can and should be allowed to decide whether or not he embarks on a sexual relationship, the fact that he uses the hypothetical of Louisa losing interest in the future rankles. He spends so much of the book demanding that his wishes be respected but refuses to even legitimize Louisa’s feelings.

His refusal is portrayed as self sacrifice for her benefit.

Ultimately his death at the end of the book is to her benefit as well. He leaves her money so that she can pursue the dreams, he told her to have. His death is also the catalyst for his parents divorce, so his father can go off with his mistress.

In perhaps an attempt to show that there were consequences to his decision for those around him and that his choice was not simply ridding him of the burden of his care, his parents’ divorce is rather minor. His family and Louisa are investigated for helping facilitate his death in Switzerland at Dignitas. While they are all ultimately found to be innocent, Will’s mother resigns from her position as a magistrate as a result of the scandal. Also in order to solidify the idea that the reader really is meant to dislike Patrick, Louisa’s now ex-boyfriend, he sells her story to the press and subjects her to a great deal of media scrutiny.

Ultimately, Will’s disability and death are used as stories of disability so often are in fiction as a catalyst for another character. His choice comes off as shallow even though it is heavily legitimized throughout the novel, because ultimately Will and everything about him really only serve to propel Louisa forward, to get her to realize that her life is in a rut, that she deserves more, she should strive for more, her life has more potential. A potential it wouldn’t have if Will chose to live because she would be tied to him instead of pursuing more education or traveling to Paris, which her inheritance allows her to do.

This kind of media is harmful in ways that giving genuine legitimacy to the voices of disabled people isn’t because if you listen to actual disabled people rather than using them as hypotheticals to defend stories like this, you get nuance even if they want to die, you hear about why. You might also hear from people who love their lives. However, while the existence  of people “who really do feel like Will Traynor” are held up a red herrings, far to much of the media representation of those feelings is fictional but people seem to accept is as real.

As Dominick Evans says in his take on the book and film,

The disability community is sick of seeing films where disabled people are misrepresented. Part of this is because we are not included, anywhere. We were not consulted for the script. A wheelchair user did not write the script. Even the main actor is an able-bodied actor, which prevents him from knowing how accurate his acting, how harmful his portrayal, and how inauthentic the script really are. Without including the disabled voice, non-disabled Hollywood continues to make life harder for us, because this is all people see, and they assume it’s true.

There is also a problem with how gleefully nondisabled people seem to adopt the idea that it is better to be dead than disabled citing “the people who really feel that way” but rarely is ever actually engaging with those people and certainly never engaging with those who don’t agree because let’s be honest, they only bring up the former to silence the latter.

New Zealand YouTube series The Daily covered some of the issues of the proliferation of the idea that it is better to be dead than disabled here,

There is so much more wrong with stories like Me Before You than the fact that the disabled person wants to die and so critiquing this kind of media is far from a tactic to silence disabled people who may want to die.

I however can’t help but feel that the tendency to jump on the “but some people do feel that way” when it doesn’t come either from someone who does or at least with more nuance relating to the critique it’s aimed at is just an expression of how people want to view disability, rather than a way to respect the fact that different disabled people perceive their lives in many ways.

** Me Before You quote taken from the Kindle Edition which I’m choosing not to link to

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What Learning Other Languages has Taught Me About How I Learned to Talk About Disability

I am an anglophone, so I first learned to speak English and it is the language I use almost exclusively day to day. I however spent my first six years of elementary school in French immersion which despite having been nearly twenty years ago at this point has left me functionally fluent in French. By which I mean I can get by in entirely French environments. My vocabulary is extensive enough, though my grammar skills are lacking but good enough to make myself understood 90% of the time on the first try. I can also read the language. though don’t ask me to write anything down as my written literacy in French is terrible.

I also have some very basic skills in German after having taken it for a couple semesters in high school and taken it up again for four or five semesters in university.

In reflecting on my non English language training I came to a realization. I was never really taught how to narrate my experience as a disabled person in any language.

In school none of the activities we talked about as we learned to read or write (in English or French) ever related to disability. They were always geared entirely toward able-bodiedness. The proverbial Dick and Jane or Spot the Dog (and their French equivalents) all ran and played and tossed and caught balls. In these lessons the other children were learning not only the rudiments of grammar and literacy but how to describe their own lives.

I was never taught to articulate how or why I couldn’t do the things my peers did, like why I couldn’t cross the monkey bars. I knew even as a Kindergartener that I had Cerebral Palsy but no one ever taught me how to talk about how it affected my life. So I knew I couldn’t cross the monkey bars but I couldn’t articulate why. Words like disabled and disability were not in my vocabulary, much less an understanding of how cerebral palsy affected my body.

Most children start grade school with the vocabulary to list off the parts of the body (Head and shoulders,knees and toes etc.). Learning the French equivalents was much the same. When we did biology lessons on the body, everything was framed through a lens of able-bodiedness. When we studied the brain, we only ever learned about it through a neuro-typical lens. No wonder, no one ever considered that I might be Autistic as a child, no one around me even had the words to describe difference. A medical definition of normalcy was completely ingrained in the places I found myself.

We didn’t learn words like disabled, wheelchair or crutches. Disability was erased from existence by simply never being mentioned.

I had those words in English eventually but I didn’t learn them in school. They were not words that appeared on spelling vocabulary lists. I never had to look up their definitions in a dictionary.

I learned about the words that describe my life in an entirely medical environment in a completely hodge-podge manner, through overhearing snippets doctors told my parents. These exchanges were never directed at me. I just happened to be in the room when they took place. Terms like brain damage, hemiplegia (a word spellcheck doesn’t even think exists, apparently I’m supposed to have meant paraplegia). Terms like walker and crutches were learned from observing the other people who came to the local rehabilitation hospital. The only one I think I got out and about in society was wheelchair and even then it’s use was framed more in terms of something elderly people needed, rather than connected to disability.

I was never taught the French equivalents of these words. I think the only one I learned organically was the term for wheelchair. I think it was in a book we read for school. Other than that my limited disability related French vocabulary comes from me actively looking them up as an adult. Even so I think I can only explain cerebral palsy in French at a very simplified first grade level. I’ve never had to seek medical treatment in the French speaking places that I have lived so I just never got taught the words in the only place they seem to be imparted to people.

That is not to say that I never encountered disability related language in grade school. It all just happened to be of the slur variety. I was definitely called a retard on many occasions. Oddly, my French immersion peers would always follow up this insult with the bizarre claim that it meant “really smart” in French as if they could convince me I hadn’t just been insulted. It is bizarre because the word retard comes from the completely innocuous French word for late or slow. As a result I was pretty familiar with it.

The point of French immersion is to have the student completely fluent by the time they finish grade 12. Even though I didn’t get that far and transferred to an English school in grade 5, I doubt that I just left before the disability vocabulary list was assigned as spelling tests are abandoned for more in depth grammar and writing training around that time anyway. I also never learned about disability and language in any of the English classes I took after that and I doubt French schools were teaching more than their English counterparts.

Oddly in terms of studying German, the instructor made a conscious choice to not teach us disability vocabulary.

Sure my semesters in high school were the same simplistic head and shoulders, knees and toes vocabulary, you get in Kindergarten but by the time I started taking university level courses, we started having more complex terms and learning to understand them in practical context.

I remember in one of my later intermediate courses, there was a word list in the textbook that specifically dealt with disability. It had words like disability, wheelchair and crutches. The professor for the course told us to skip it. I remember being disappointed but not being brave enough to ask her why. I did go through the section on my own time and the only issue I found was that the reading comprehension section, where they put the vocabulary in context did veer into inspiration porn territory. It was a story about a 19th century woman who used a wheelchair and ran a successful toy factory. The last line of the piece was something along the lines of “It just goes to show that a person in a wheelchair can be a success!” *sigh*.

While, yes I could learn these words and how to use them on my own time, I sincerely doubt that any of my nondisabled peers felt compelled to do so. So even when non-medical centred opportunities present themselves, they really only hold appeal to people personally affected. Learning about disability still isn’t seen as necessary, it is extra.

It is in reflecting, particularly on that experience in German class which really drove home how building my disability vocabulary was entirely medicalized when it really didn’t have to be.

I do wonder if things are different now at least for children (that German textbook incident wasn’t really that long ago). I didn’t have access to the internet as a kid. Discussions and debates around terminology like person first vs. identity first didn’t exist back then. There was no call to #SayTheWord.

I am worried that these important language discussions don’t really trickle down to children, whose worlds are still very much framed by the adults around them. Adults who are themselves often non-disabled. Just consider how strong the unflinching support for person-first language can be among certain parent bloggers.

So I wonder are we still denying children the language to speak about and understand their own lives? And if so how can we work to change it?

We Need to Stop Saying Things Like “The Last Acceptable Prejudice”

I came across an article yesterday entitled “Laughing at Dwarfism is the Last Acceptable Prejudice“. It’s a great article actually. It talks about how the author and other people with dwarfism have both experienced general prejudice and the added bizarre phenomenon of having people basically ask them if it is ok to tell a story or joke at the expense of someone (or all people) with dwarfism. It is important to talk about these kinds of social interactions and dissect how problematic this behaviour is.

It is however simply not true that there is only one single group that experiences prejudice that is either socially accepted or ignored as being not as big an issue as it is. A quick google search for “the last acceptable prejudice” netted me several groups that are currently vying for the title. The most common being Catholics. The list quickly extended to include; sexism in sports, obesity, ageism, LGBT people, rich people, and people with accents. There are like others who would also claim the title. In terms of actually experiencing prejudice some people who claim the title have more valid reasons to cite prejudice than do others (rich people for example, this assertion came from Donald Trump for those of you who didn’t click through). The fact remains that for the majority of these groups, their claims to experiencing prejudice–prejudice that was likely ignored by others–is entirely valid.

In 1989 Diane Driedger wrote a book about the fight for civil rights for disabled people. She titled this book “The Last Civil Rights Movement” I can personally think of a few advances and set back in civil rights for a number of groups other that disabled people that have occurred since 1989. Momentum on marriage equality only really picked up this century, racism is still very much a thing and attacks on women’s reproductive freedom are alive and well. I have heard Driedger speak and she spoke about joining the disability rights movement because all of the other major movements were over. I have always been troubled by this as other oppressions still clearly exist and there is still activism battling those oppressions. She is also not the only person to label a movement “The Last Civil Rights Movement

I know phrases like this don’t actively deny other prejudices and oppressions but they do unnecessarily minimize them which creates competing oppressions or the oppression olympics with everyone shouting over each other to either simply validate their experiences or even actively suggest that theirs is worse. It would be almost impossible to quantify this in most cases and I genuinely don’t think it’s useful to try. At the end of the day oppression and prejudice are terrible things to experience and I don’t think anyone should have to wait in line to have their experiences addressed just because someone else’s have been deemed worse.

Acceptable prejudice particularly is after all pretty subjective. We live in a world where a man who is running for president can say that he thinks a significant portion of undocumented immigrants are rapists. Last I checked, he’s still a strong contender for the nomination. The fact that a lot of people were horrified and shocked and actively protest him doesn’t change the fact that a significant and influential number of people actually seem to like that kind of rhetoric.

We also live in a world where calling out prejudicial behaviour is attacked. The backlash against political correctness is strong and growing. The number of people who think being able to say offensive things without backlash is already large and growing. People who disagree with them are labeled whiny and thin skinned. The fact that these people often know that they are saying offensive things is irrelevant, they are still actively trying to make it acceptable for them to do so without criticism.

I sincerely doubt there is a prejudice that is universally accepted by everyone who doesn’t belong to the targeted group and there is likely a large group of people who find prejudices against every marginalized group acceptable (even if that acceptance isn’t universal. There is no “last acceptable prejudice” I assure you there are many and it only hurts people when one experience of oppression is given unnecessary precedent over another.

There needs to be a way that people can talk about their own experiences of prejudice without erasing those of others.

Just Because I Use Identity First Language Doesn’t Mean I Let Disability Define Me

I’ve talked about disability and self labeling before, I am no going to rehash my reasons again but there is an aspect of the debate around person first and identity first language that I’d like to take a look at.

Language and how it’s used is complicated and as a result, how language is used often deviates from the original intention. However for context here is a brief description of the original intent of both person first and identity first labeling.

Person First: as in person with a disability (as opposed to disabled person), person with with autism (as opposed to autistic person) was conceived to combat stigma around the term disability. It was meant to show the humanity of the person with a disability diagnosis by highlighting the individual’s personhood first. Disability was just tangential.

Person first language sprung from a medical understanding of disability, where disability was seen as the problem so it had to be de-emphasized.

Identity first: as in disabled person (as opposed to person with a disability) was originally conceived to challenge the medical view of disability and replace it with a socio-cultural view. It wasn’t people’s diagnoses that were the problem, it was society. Society was the main cause of disablement. Saying you were a disabled person was originally not about identity at all it was an acknowledgement that society was the predominant cause of barriers for people with impairments (see my post here for a more in depth breakdown of the social model of disability). It was a way of calling attention to society’s physical and social barriers by tying oppression to the term disablement.

I sincerely doubt that most people who use identity first language are doing so to constantly be saying “hey you are oppressing me” or “hey I’m oppressed” (even though those two statements are likely true). They do it for the same reasons I do. It is a way to reject the idea that disability is a dirty word and to say that disability can be a part of a person’s identity without sacrificing their humanity. It’s a pushback against the stigma associated with disability (for more see this piece by Emily Ladau).

It is from this perspective that I will be dealing with an issue that I often see in the debate between person first language (PFL) and identity first language (IFL).

There are several defenders of PFL who reject the idea of disability as negative but maintain the use of PFL because they feel that using IFL means they are letting disability define them and they are more complex than one identifier.

I honestly find this reasoning a little ridiculous. All people are complex and embody multiple identities that may include race, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, nationality and more and yes even disability. I would argue that most people who identify with any of these things don’t then reject everything else. I have yet to hear an argument where someone has to argue where their religion is placed in a sentence by themselves or others means that it is completely defining them.

When it comes to being defined by a single identifier, it is not usually the individual being labeled doing the defining. It is someone else. In terms of identities that are marginalized the person doing the defining is probably being bigoted. People are far to complicated to be reduced to a single label.

Ultimately, it shouldn’t matter where disability is put in a sentence before or after person. It should just be a description. I admit I often use disabled person and person with a disability interchangeably when speaking about people generally just to have variety in my writing.

I however, choose to use IFL to directly challenge the bigotry inherent in assuming that I must be separated from my body to be considered human. I most definitely don’t do it to pigeon hole my identity into one label. I am far to complicated for that, just like everyone else.

I continue to believe that people should have the right to self-label and I endeavor to respect people’s personal preferences because we have been labeled by others far to often and it is time for us to take over the conversation about our own lives. I will not however accept the idea that my choice in sentence structure means that I am limiting my identity.

Can We Please Stop Calling Able-Bodied People TABs

Physical access for people with disabilities is crucially important for an inclusive society. We currently fall far short of being fully accessible. This is true pretty much everywhere, though some places are worse than others.

It can be difficult to get people who do not face barriers to public access to take those barriers seriously or to even acknowledge how widespread those barriers are. As a way to bring context to this issue where one side lives an experience of regular and often unpredictable public exclusion and the other which is allowed to remain blissfully ignorant, the disabled community came up with the abbreviation TAB.

Temporarily Able-Bodied. In an effort to build understanding around the issues of disabled people, we chose to remind people that we are a group they can join at any time and most crucially are very likely to join. It is described as

“AB” is an abbreviation for able-bodied; “TAB” is a slightly more to-the-point abbreviation meaning “Temporarily Able-Bodied.” TAB refers to the inevitable—namely, that most of us will face disability at some point in our lives; whether it comes sooner or later varies depending upon one’s circumstances.

Frankly, there are better ways to explain why accessibility and understanding of disability issues are important.

Accessibility helps anyone who has to push a stroller or carry boxes. Full accessibility and its maintenance make life easier for everyone who has to move around. Disabled people are simply given more equal access. Access that is often otherwise denied.

Laurie Toby Edison and Debbie Notkin, who use the term TAB argue that

Using it is a way for a disability activist (or anyone discussing disability) to quickly and effectively bring all of her/his listeners into one group: some of us are disabled now and many of us will be sooner or later. It’s a phrase that builds community, that reminds people that the needs of some are really the needs of everyone. It’s akin to “universal design” as a phrase reminding us of what brings us together, rather than what separates us.

I find this view a bit naive. Disability is still deeply stigmatized. People actively fear becoming like us. I have a friend who often states that they would prefer to die young than ever become dependent in their old age. Even the authors of the last quote understand that the term can be problematic simply because it is not true. Not all currently able-bodied people will become disabled ether temporarily or permanently. They say,

At the same time, like any catchphrase, it’s oversimplified. Disability is not inevitable. Only two things are always temporary: life, and youth. Everything else is conditional, contextual, and/or statistical. Definitions of ability/disability are exceedingly complex; even definitions of “aging” are less obvious than they might immediately appear.

Ability is not always temporary. Two large groups of people are able-bodied until they die: first, those who age able-bodied (not just 90-year-old hikers but also people over 80 who walk to the grocery store every day and clean their own homes). Second, and harder to see, are the people who die able-bodied at any age. In a culture that tries not to admit that people die at all and is especially resistant to admitting that young people ever die, it’s important to remember that death and old age are not synonymous. And, of course, disability is not always permanent either: the world is full of people who are temporarily disabled.

Despite their misgivings, they ultimately still believe that the term has value as a community builder and they intend to continue using it albeit with disclaimers.

I genuinely see the term TAB as more of a threat (at least in how it is perceived, regardless of the intent of the user) than anything useful. It is saying, you will be like us someday and how will you get around the world then?

I most frequently hear TAB used as an inevitable description. As already pointed out this is simply not true. As Notkin and Edison point out, people have difficulty coming to terms with mortality. Disability though not always deadly is an extension of that fear. People do not view acquired disability calmly or dispassionately. They quite often fear it.

Ezekiel J. Emmanuel sums up why he would prefer to die early, rather than live as long as possible,

But here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.

So disability is feeble, ineffectual and pathetic. Emmanuel is far from alone in his beliefs. If he weren’t this discussion would not be necessary.

For a term like TAB to be effective at including others in understanding, they must first understand that disability is not a fate worse than death.

Unfortunately, understanding disability and the barriers disabled people face will take more than a term that is at best misleading and at worse could fan flames of fear because telling someone who fears disability that they are likely to become disabled is more likely to cause backlash than open channels of communication.

When is Language Ableist or Offensive

Comedian and disability rights activist Maysoon Zayid was recently featured in a Think Big video where she advocates for disabled people being given opportunities to be cast in film and television roles where the character is disabled. Currently the most common casting decision is to give those roles to nondisabled actors. The video is well worth a watch.

Since the video is on YouTube it has garnered a lot of comments and as with most comment sections on the internet many of the messages are offensive. Oddly this post is not about ignorant commenters but rather a conversation Zayid had on Twitter regarding one specific comment.

She begins with this tweet

ableism language 1

She is paraphrasing for the brevity required of twitter. In this tweet shat has used #retard to draw attention to the original commenter’s offensive language.

The first response agrees that the comment is both ignorant and offensive and concludes by calling the commenter a #moron.

ableism language 2

For context, here is a little history of the linguistic evolution around intellectual disability.

Words like idiot, moron and imbecile used to be medical terms but by the late 19th century had been widely adopted by society as general insults. In a move intended to find terms the medical community could use to describe intellectual disability without resorting to insults, a new medical term was adopted. It was retarded. Until then the word retard had been used to mean slow down or impede. Since its adoption in relation to disability however, it has become a slur that easily rivals the offense caused by its predecessors in offensiveness.

Likely because she was aware of this history one respondent questioned the use of language.

ableism language 3

While it was established that the use of #retard was in fact a direct reference to quoted language from a YouTube comment, the use of #moron was not.

This led to a conversation about whether moron is still ableist and when language is ableist, It seems to have concluded with these three tweets

ableism language 4

ableism language 5

ableism language 6

After this Mills no longer participates in the conversation and it moves on. Whether her absence is because she feels the matter is settled or is no longer comfortable questioning it, is unclear.

I am not going to take a stand on whether terms like idiot and moron are still offensive in an ableist way. Quite frankly it isn’t my call. Those words have never been connected to me medically so I am not directly oppressed by their continued use. I do however know that there are people who are affected by those words in ways that extend beyond their synonymous connection with stupidity.

I would however like to comment on the idea that ableism is only present when in the direct context of disability or when directed at disabled people because that just doesn’t make sense.

Words mean specific things. I can’t make the word ugly mean beautiful just by how I use it in a sentence.

The word retard does not stop being offensive or ableist when it is directed at someone or something that isn’t disabled. This was eloquently evidenced by John Franklin Stephens when he challenged Ann Coulter for calling President Obama a retard.

This is not just a disability issue. Just look at how the word gay which now most commonly refers to homosexuality but others have used it as a general pejorative. When someone calls an outfit or a situation gay, they are associating being gay with all things negative. The fact that no actual gay people are present is irrelevant.

Using words that reference a group of people and directing as a negative insult is harmful whether or not the people referenced are present to be directly hurt by it. This is because it culturally normalizes negative associations with that marginalized group and adds to systemic oppression.

I realize that it is impossible to have this kind of in depth discussion when limited to 140 characters, which is why I’m responding here.

I think particularly when considering ableist language when it discussed by disabled people, it is important to remember that disability may be the largest minority group but it is also one of the most diverse. Even if you ignore intersectional identities like sex, gender identity, race, sexuality, religion, etc. Disabled people are diverse in their diagnosis and sometimes this one identifier has social repercussions that are not shared with the whole disabled community. What may be offensive to one group could be unimportant to another. It is essential that while fighting for equality and an inclusive society that we don’t leave part of the group behind. The hierarchy of disability is real and it is often internalized.

When deciding if language is ableist please consider more than its effect on disability as a whole or if perhaps there is a group that you don’t fit into that may be differently affected.

Update

I have been asked by one of the people involved to remove their name and image. I have done so

Update 2

Amanda Mills has contacted me via twitter to confirm that she did leave the conversation because she no longer felt welcome there and felt as though she was being treated as overreacting.

I make this update with her permission.