The Shape of Water is a Toxic Romantic Fantasy: The Issues With this Disability Romance Narrative

 

ShapeWater-tank

Image Description: A still from The Shape of Water. Sally Hawkin as Elisa, a dark haired woman shown in profile has her hands on the glass of a large tank. On the other side a humanoid but scaly creature with webbed hands gazes back at her.

 

This post contains spoilers

 

I know I’m late in presenting an opinion on Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water but considering that the Oscar nominations were just released and Del Toro’s film has garnered a number of nominations including Best Actress for Sally Hawkins, I may be late but I’m certainly not too late.

The Shape of Water is basically a dark and flipped to take on a combination of Disney’s and Hans Christian Andersen’s original The Little Mermaid. Instead of a sea creature wanting to walk among humans, a human wants to be with a sea creature. Elisa, played by Hawkins is a woman who has no voice. She didn’t sell it to a sea witch but rather experienced an undefined violent injury to her vocal cords as an infant.

Unlike her Disney counterpart Ariel, Elisa doesn’t want to be separated from humanity around her but is instead ostracized because of her disability. In fact, at the end of the film, she seems prepared to give up her monstrous lover in order to stay with people. It is only because she is mortally wounded and no longer given a choice that she ends up in the water with her beloved creature.

Her character—like all of the characters in the film—is one-dimensional. She is a mishmash of disability stereotypes. She is a social outsider who is largely perceived to be “other”. She clearly longs for more inclusion but is unable to get it. She experiences only simplistic emotions that seem more appropriate to a toddler than they do to a grown woman who has not one but two gratuitous masturbation scenes (so you can throw in a creepy sexualization of innocence as well).

The lack of emotional range for the character is really down to the performance given by Sally Hawkins. I have seen many people applaud the silence of her performance but silence isn’t a performance, it is a narrative choice. A performance would be everything that the character does outside of that silence. Which in this case is predominantly very simplistic facial expressions and a very little amount of sign language. What that amounts to is that Elisa’s character has less to do with her character or the performance given by Hawkins than it does with the storytelling around it.

Everything about the narrative shows how alone Elisa is. She lives alone in a poorly furnished apartment. Her neighbour and only nonwork-related friend largely ignores her if it doesn’t suit him. She is an orphan who experienced violence. She is so ignored at work that she can take her lunch breaks with her employer’s top-secret project and have it remain largely unnoticed even by her closest coworker.

Her only driving motivation is to be wanted. To be Included. She ultimately gets one and not the other which is what makes this film a nightmare.

Del Toro masterfully sets up a narrative where Elisa’s ostracization and treatment are clearly the fault of people around her. The film directly acknowledges that her oppression is socially constructed and then it lets the world get away with it.

Even at the end Elisa never intends to run away with her lover. She saves him from vivisection and lets him camp out in her bathroom but the relationship has an expiration date. The day he can be safely released back into the water.

Even as they stand on the edge of the canal and the creature asks her to go with him, she refuses. She still wants the human world. She still thinks her place is there. She again loses her right to choose though, after her boss, the film’s villain shoots her. She is either dying or dead when she is lifted and carried into the water by her lover. The lover, she intended to let go. He either heals or resurrects her in the final moments of the film enabling her to breathe underwater so that they can spend their lives together. Away from the world that rejected them both. This is supposed to be romantic.

Even if you ignore the rejection of Elisa’s agency when she said that she intended to stay on land. The film acknowledges that the barriers she experienced were socially constructed and then concluded with “It’s better to just leave”. Leave and live what is implied to be a solitary existence where she has only her lover for company.

It is interesting how closely this conclusion mirrors my own youthful fantasies about romantic relationships (except that I kept my imaginary lovers human). I often felt like any relationship I might find would be a once in a lifetime opportunity and that we would inevitably end up living a secluded life together because of the discrimination that I faced. Except in the real world, that kind of relationship is a recipe for abuse and I’m glad I grew out of it.

The Shape of Water could so easily be a different kind of horror film about the dangers of social denial of the sexuality of disabled people and how that makes them easy targets for abusers. Instead, it does exactly that story but ignores the inherent dangers of becoming infatuated with the first man who pays you any attention because the world has spent decades telling you that you are undesirable. It takes what should be a cautionary tale and turns it into a bittersweet romance. In so doing it absolves the bigoted world that rejected Elisa and ends on the message that if the world doesn’t work for you, even if it’s clearly the result of discrimination that the best option is to leave.

At least in both versions of The Little Mermaid, the mermaid was clearly trying to move from one society to another. Elisa gives that up for a completely uncertain future. As Elsa Sjunneson-Henry points out in the title of her own review of the film “I want to be where the people are”.

Disabled people don’t need more pseudo-romantic movies that romanticize our otherness, that connect us so clearly to monsters. That say if society doesn’t accept you that you might as well embrace the monster that they see in you and join literal monsters in a life away from humanity.

 

 

 

 

 

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Let’s Contextualize the Suspension of that University of Guelph Prof who Bullied a Disabled Student

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Image Description: A monochrome image of a graduation cap

Yesterday, a story came out about a University of Guelph professor who had openly mocked a disabled student during lecture. This resulted in the targeted student leaving the room along with his aide. Many of his classmates followed suit. The professor in question has been placed on leave and the incident is being applauded as a victory for justice.

While the actions of the professor were abhorrent and he deserves to have been suspended, there is a lot of context that this story is leaving out in favour of celebrating the nondisabled students who walked out in solidarity with their classmate.

I wrote a twitter thread on this yesterday but based on some of the responses I got from it, I think that a full blog post is necessary.

This is only a news story because of the solidarity of nondisabled students. I wish nondisabled people understood how much power they have to improve or limit the lives of disabled people.

The story itself treats the abused student as a prop. They are not named and are never interviewed. The entire narrative is framed around the recollections of nondisabled people.

The sentiments expressed are generally positive and supportive but the issue is also clearly framed as a one off. One bad professor. The students imply they will stand against any other injustice. But will you?

More importantly, do you? The thing that makes the Guelph story unique isn’t that it happened. The more shocking thing is that it happened in public. Disabled students experience discrimination from professors regularly. I am willing to bet that professors refuse to accommodate disabled students daily. It just happens behind closed doors and they tend to use less inflammatory language.

Some professors write op-eds and publish academic articles advocating exactly that. Where were the mass walkouts in solidarity then?

Solidarity in the Guelph incident is positive but it’s important to put it in context. The stakes for protesting students were low. The professor was a sub. Students were risking walking out on a single lecture not the entire course for the semester. They were not challenging the actual course director who has control over their grades.

Would they have walked out if it had been the course director?

Would they have been willing to potentially sacrifice an entire credit?

As responses to my twitter thread have shown me, the professor in question is not popular. I’ve received several responses from his former pupils that are all along the lines of,

“Oh, I had him as a prof and he’s a massive douche”

That reinforces the idea that people who see this story interpret it as an isolated incident perpetrated by someone widely considered detestable. There is no consideration of whether his behaviour fits into a system of discrimination against disabled people in academia.

It is more comfortable to see his behaviour as wholly aberrant instead of understanding that the only thing surprising about it is that he did it so publicly. There are many more faculty members slowly tearing down disabled students in the safety of their offices.

Where is the protest over that?

The Guelph incident is tragic not just for the abuse that one student suffered but because the way it has been framed in the media allows people to believe such incidents are rare and that they are inevitably met with swift and effective push back when they do.

 

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Katimavik Completely Changed My Life for the Better but I have Misgivings about it Coming Back

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Image Description: A photo of nineteen year old me crouching in a refrigerator that has had all the shelves removed. I had short bleach blond hair and am wearing a white hoodie featuring characters from Charles Schultz’ Peanuts comic.

 

When I was 18, I was diagnosed as being autistic. I finally had an explanation for all the social misunderstanding and interpersonal faux pas I’d experienced. I now knew that every time I was punished for some mysterious crime with the all too frequent admonishment ‘It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it” were not my fault. All those hours spent relegated to my bedroom wracking my brain to try and figure out why I was even in trouble suddenly made sense. Diagnosis for me was freeing. It was, however, still a diagnosis which said that I was medically predisposed to be terrible at navigating social situations, particularly in new environments with people I didn’t know.

So, obviously three months later I got on a plane to BC with the full knowledge and intention of moving into a house with eleven strangers.

I did this through a government-funded program called Katimavik which took Canadian or permanent resident youths (between 17-21) from all over Canada and divided them into groups of 11 and over the course of nine months placed them in three communities throughout Canada with a different project leader in each location. The intention was for us to do full-time volunteer work, establish strong links to volunteerism and engage with the varied culture of Canada by immersing ourselves in the communities in which we lived.

It was without question one of the most important experiences of my life. I can say without doubt that I would not be the person I am today without having done it or having known my housemates.

Nearly 12 years later though, I am conflicted about my experiences in Katimavik because I almost didn’t qualify to participate and because I know many more disabled people were denied access to that opportunity.

I have sat quietly with my discomfort over the fact that I was privileged enough to be considered “not disabled enough” to not be deemed ineligible. I was able to do this largely because not long after I left the program, the Conservative government defunded it. First rolling back funding so that it was a ghost of what it had once been and then ultimately shutting it down altogether.

The Conservative government is no more though and the Liberal government led by Justin Trudeau (who was a staunch supporter of Katimavik in his pre-politics days) has reinstated the funding.

Katimavik was originally conceived of in the 1970s. It’s 2018 and I fear the discrimination that was built into the original program with remain in its rebirth.

This is significant not only for the injustice of denying disabled youths the chance at this kind of formative experience but because of the opportunities it leads to.

Prior to Katimavik, I was completely unemployable. I spent the first year after high school futily looking for a job to pay for university. I didn’t find one. I mostly spent the year playing housekeeper for my grandmother. She did pay me but was also clearly more interested in having company. So I did very little work as she constantly derailed my attempts to clean with conversation. I maybe worked 1 hour in every 5 spent at her house. I was only paid for what I worked. I made almost no money.

After Katimavik, with a resume that had been boosted by the volunteer work that I had put in at an elementary school, an employment centre, and a publicly run internet café (many people in the area didn’t have access to computers much less the internet) I found work (of the retail variety) relatively easily.

Katimavik gave me the skills and work history necessary to do that. My physically disabled, undiagnosed autistic self was otherwise just utterly unemployable. This is a reality for far too many disabled people.

One of the great perks of Katimavik is that if you get in, you are guaranteed work throughout the program. It’s just unfortunate that the program aggressively screens out disabled people. I almost didn’t make it in.

They successfully hid behind the fact that the houses were inaccessible as were many of the work placements. An argument that I suspect was helped by the fact that so much of the infrastructure for the program was conceived of and implemented well before the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was added to the constitution.

Will that argument still get made in 2018? When they have the chance to start from scratch?

Part of qualifying for Katimavik hinged on passing a medical inspection. You had to get a doctor to fill out a long and detailed form that was then reviewed by the program itself.

It had questions like:

Do you (the doctor) have any reason to believe this person would have difficulty participating in physical activity?

Does the patient have any disabling conditions? Please describe limitations.

Anyone who used a wheelchair was immediately screened out. My cerebral palsy threw them and they assumed that my doctor must be lying or misrepresenting my physical capabilities. So I had to answer clarifying questions like:

Can you walk? (apparently, by not expressly saying that I could, they assumed that I couldn’t)

Can you run?

Can you swim? (I can, but it seems irrelevant because the nondisabled participants weren’t asked to confirm this and at least one of my nondisabled housemates couldn’t)

These types of questions do two things. They show that people will always assume inability from disabled people if the ability isn’t clearly stated even if other questions directly asking about physical limitations are also answered in ways that indicate ability. It also forced me to confirm that “I wasn’t that kind of disabled”.

As it was, my autism diagnosis came after I had jumped through those hoops so had again had to prove that I could participate. This time by acquiring a letter from the diagnosing psychiatrist saying that I was safe to be around children. A concern that didn’t exist prediagnosis.

I went through all of those indignities and I can’t claim that I didn’t know other disabled people weren’t making the cut. I had read a news story (that I, unfortunately, can’t find anymore) about a wheelchair user who tried and failed to force the program into accepting him.

I knew, that the program excluded other disabled people. I knew that but I went anyway. I went anyway and I reaped the benefits of the experience both at work and in the relationships I created with the people I met.

I absolutely would not be who I am now if I hadn’t. I probably wouldn’t be here feeling discomfort at the benefits of being not disabled enough to exclude.

I am uncomfortable though and Katimavik is back so that discomfort matters. It matters because I know what I got out of the program. I know I wouldn’t have a Masters degree. I wouldn’t be a PhD student.

Disabled people need access to coming of age experiences. Not just the work experience. The lived experience of navigating cohabitation with too many strangers in too small of a house. The experiences of misunderstandings and fights and learning to create boundaries.

Katimavik has always been fundamentally about creating a quintessential Canadian experience and by actively excluding disabled people, it reinforces how not apart of Canada we are unless we fit a narrow standard of “able-bodied enough” and a willingness to leave other disabled people behind.

It’s 2018 and I hope the new Katimavik does better but honestly, I’m not holding my breath.

 

 

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Why I Dislike the ISA and Why I Think it has Failed

International symbol of access

I hate the International Symbol of Access (ISA). That symbol that is intended to indicate spaces built to accommodate disabled people. It has however fundamentally failed to promote the accessibility that it meant to signify. If anything it has fostered misunderstandings both outside of and within the disability community. The symbol is tellingly often referred to as “The Wheelchair Symbol” and that is unfortunately what far too many people–disabled people included–seem to think it refers to, wheelchair users.

The ISA was and is intended to be generic in reference. It is supposed to be a symbol of access for disabled people. It is not supposed to prioritize or define which needs are accommodated. It is as much for me, an ambulatory part-time mobility aid (a bioness L300 or an AFO) using person or any other embodiment of disability as it is for wheelchair users. Unfortunately, people often look at that image as a guide for who it is intended to benefit. People think the symbol is prescriptive and thus privilege wheelchair users not only in who they consider when they determine what accessibility looks like but also in who they think gets to claim the symbol as representative of themselves.

Nonwheelchair using disabled people absolutely experience discrimination because cultural understandings of disability tend to at the very least require some visible marker of disability of which a wheelchair is often the most recognizable. People who require accessible services but don’t match that cultural image experience judgement and cruelty. People feel righteous and justified in their discriminatory behaviour. They think they are protecting “the truly disabled”.

More recently the ISA has found itself at the centre of a debate about disability representation online. The ISA is the only clearly disability specific emoji available in an ever-expanding selection.

With the latest apple update in emoji again left out any emojis for disability leaving people wondering why there are a plethora of emojis for mystical creatures but the only emoji available to encompass all disability is the ISA. There are no real wheelchair using emoji much less cane using emoji or BiPAP using emoji or really anything that represents the diversity of the disabled experience.

Some outsiders have suggested that we should rely on those mythical creatures that abound in the emoji catalogue to create the nuance that the ISA lacks

We ought apparently resign ourselves to metaphors. Metaphors that also carry the baggage of monstrosity and fear.

Zombies are a scourge that as they shamble along to threaten the dominant parts of society.

Merfolk may have been sanitized by Disney but they were once fearful creatures who lured sailing men to their deaths.

The debate gets worse when disabled people buy into it and suggest that nonwheelchair using people should be further alienated from the ISA by suggesting that it really is only for wheelchair users and that its use by others could be offensive.

The very act of asking this question is problematic and feeds the broader cultural belief that the ISA really does just mean wheelchair users. And as we have no viable alternative, that narrative further marginalizes and delegitimizes the people who are very much disabled but don’t look like what people expect a disabled person to look like.

Attempts have been made to update the ISA. The most enduring of which is simply an updated version of the original.

 

updated access symbol.png

Image Description: Updated accessibility symbol. A white silhouette of an active wheelchair using stick figure

 

It maintains the same issues as its predecessor. Its primary appeal is that it is a less passive image but it still tries to encompass disability with the wheelchair so it is just as misleading.

There are of course more specific access symbols such as symbols which indicate the availability of braille, sign language interpretation or closed captioning.

I have seen some suggest that the current ISA should be replaced with a tableaux of all of the accessibility symbols but this too falls short. They still leave people out and might give nondisabled people the false idea that they have a more complete understanding of what disability is or at least which disabilities count.

The primary problem is that people do not understand what disability looks like and by extension that accessibility needs extend beyond the needs of wheelchair users.

I tend to be a bit jaded in my ability to have faith in the ability of nondisabled people to clue into the reality that they have been comfortably ignoring forever, so I used to believe that we really needed to find that magical symbol that would spell it out for them.

As a result, when a guest speaker in one of my graduate classes suggested replacing the ISA with a more generic symbol of an A to symbolize access I initially balked at the idea. I have since come around to either an A or at least something as vague.

I have come to realize that not only is the existence of an all encompassing symbol impossible. Looking for one just caters to the blissful ignorance of the people who use the ISA to justify defining who deserves access.

It’s time to force them to take responsibility for their ignorance and hopefully learn something in the process.

That is not to say that more specific symbols don’t have their place. It will always be helpful in informing people what specific services and accommodations are available but it would be helpful if people outside of the individuals those symbols benefit were aware that they do not encompass the entirety of access needs.

Embracing vagueness in an update of the ISA forces people to ask questions about why the change happened and reconsider what it means to be disabled and what that looks like. It might also make people wonder why the only thing we’ve had to represent to totality of disability for decades is that stick figure in a wheelchair.

 

 

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Dear Judith Newman, I’m Writing this For You because You Didn’t Write For Me

 

boycott to siri

Image Description: Text “BoycottToSiri” in white on a black background

 

Dear Judith Newman,

I have not read your book To Siri With Love and I frankly don’t intend to. I know this will frustrate some people, maybe even you but I don’t actually think it is relevant to the thing that I want to criticize. I have seen my fellow actually autistic people in pain from your book. I have read their critiques and there are things about your book that quite frankly are unlikely to be saved by added context. The transphobia that exists in the introduction to your book, that you wrote that you wanted the power to sterilize your son, the sexist and disrespectful way you referred to Amythest Schaber.

Yes, yes I know, you’ve since said that you no longer plan or intend to sterilize your son. The thing is it’s too late. You published that awful bigotted sentiment in a best selling book, you can’t take it back now. The damage of that awful statement is already done. Even if you remove it from subsequent editions, it’s still out there and that message will be stronger and longer lasting than any weak backpedalling you do now.

You claim that you apologized to Amythest but as far as I’ve seen you’ve at best made a fauxpology and at worst you’ve simply made excuses. You also still clearly don’t understand why what you did was wrong, so I will again try to explain it to you. There are two major issues.

You described Amythest as a manic pixie dream girl. This term describes a narrative device where a female character (usually quirky) exists entirely for the benefit and consumption of a straight male protagonist and the presumed straight male audience.

You did somewhat address this critique but I have yet to see an actual apology. You have so far only been sorry that your intent was not effectively conveyed. You say that you thought the term was just a more modern version of gamine (a word so obscure I admit I had to look it up). You were just trying to be down with the kids. This response shows that you didn’t understand the other part of why calling Amythest a manic pixie dream girl was inappropriate.

You shouldn’t have been describing Amythest at all. What does what Amythest looks like have to do with the YouTube videos you were citing? Nothing. Reducing Amythest to a physical descriptor regardless of the underlying meaning of the intended compliment was itself inappropriate. People did not need to know that you think Amythest is gamine (a girl with mischievous or boyish charm) to know those videos are full of great information.

The thing I really want to talk to you about though is your response to the backlash from actually autistic people. You brushed off those criticisms by saying that you did not write your book for us.

This is a big problem especially for someone who claims to be autism friendly. With this statement, you prove that autistic people are just props for you. You did not care about the impact of this book on us. You also hide behind stereotypes to deflect from criticisms.

Apparently, we can’t understand your book because you put jokes in it. I can’t speak for all of us but I assure you there are many autistic people who understand jokes. We also know when they are not funny or at our expense.

There is something so utterly isolating about being told that a book where autism is central to the narrative was never intended for autistic people. Are we not part of the population? Do we not read? Shouldn’t you have considered that we might read it? That we are hungry for good representation?

If you are as autism friendly as you claim, shouldn’t you care more about what we have to say? Did you consider getting a sensitivity reader before you published?

You did not write for us and because of that regardless of the content of your book, you promoted our continued marginalization.

You wrote about us without our input to be consumed by people who already think of us as other. By erasing us from your inteded audience you turned us into zoo exhibits.

You did not write for us and the only real reason for forgetting that any part of the population might be part of your audience is because you forgot or don’t acknowledge that we are.

I write this for you because you did not write for me and I want you never to forget that autistic people read your book anyway. autistic people had opinions on your book anyway and you did not listen. Worse than that you have tried to actively silence us.

You did not write for us. Well too fucking bad, we remember that we human even if you and Harper Collins forgot. We’ll read whatever we want and protest when it hurts us. Rave reviews from Jon Stewart be damned.

I write this to you to remind you that regardless of your intent you have caused harm and your response to that has been erasure.

I write this also for anyone who thinks they can write about a marginalized group to which they do not belong and deflect backlash with “well I didn’t write it for you” as though that erases the harm instead of increasing it tenfold.

Sticks and stones may break my bones but silencincing autistic voices hurts far more than me.

Sincerely,

Kim Sauder (Actually Autistic)

 

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Tommy Adaptive and the Complicated Ethics of Having No Alternatives

 

Tommy Adaptive

Image Description: Logo for Tommy Hilfiger’s Adaptive line. Navy Blue text on a black background which reads “Tommy Hilfiger adaptive clothing”

 

Tommy Hilfiger has come out with a line of adaptive clothing for disabled people and I am conflicted. There is so little truly good adaptive fashion available to disabled people and the Tommy Adaptive line is pretty and stylish. Something that is frequently decidedly lacking in adaptive clothing which often seems to presume an elderly clientele and that this clientele will not care if their clothing is hideously ugly (apparently this is somehow a dress and not a hospital gown). I am offended both for this unfortunate assumption about older people and for the fact that clothing brands tend to forget that disabled young people exist.

Adaptive clothing suffers from many pitfalls. If it isn’t hideous then it is still only available online and then may only ship to certain locations. This is true of the Zappos adaptive line (limited to the United States, most models of Nike’s accessible Flyease shoes (limited to the United States), much of Marks & Spencer’s “Easy Dressing” children’s clothing (United Kingdom) and Tommy Adaptive (Canada & the United States). Access to these products requires living in the right country, paying for an expensive forwarding service or knowing accommodating people in those countries. Thank you to the incomparable Alice Wong for sending me my second pair of Nike Flyease shoes after they stopped selling women’s styles in Canada (I will fight anyone who says the friend you make on the internet are fake or in any way inferior to the people you meet in the corporeal world).

The geographical limitations of so many of these products are in and of themselves a serious barrier to access. The fact that most of them are only available online (I’m not sure about the M&S products) requires what is effectively an expensive gamble because they cannot be tried on first (who knew that my autistic self would ever dare buy shoes online but what other choice do I have?). Returning items can be difficult if you are disabled and potentially impossible if you live outside the regular service area and have relied on friends or a forwarding service to get the item. If it doesn’t fit or isn’t flattering then you may be out of luck and out the money.

In terms of actual stylish clothing, Tommy Hilfiger rules the adaptive market. Zappos has a few stylish items designed to be accessible but most of their “adaptive” clothing is really just standard athletic wear. I did not need Zappos consumer research to know that sweatpants and leggings are both stretchy and comfortable. Luckily, I also don’t need Zappos to buy those things. They aren’t exactly work appropriate. They are also culturally stigmatized as the uniform of the lazy if they are worn anywhere except going to and from the gym. They are decidedly not adaptive.

So, Tommy Adaptive enters the market and there aren’t any leggings in sight. There are blouses and cute trousers and cardigans. These clothes are designed to make you feel pretty. It is a distinct departure from almost all preceding accessible fashion. Women’s pants sizes even go up to size 16 which while not an expansive size range is still two sizes higher than Hilfiger’s nonadaptive women’s clothing which tops out at 12.

Tommy Adaptive offers me a unique conundrum because I am both physically disabled and so could benefit from this clothing line (well the tops anyway, my hips and ass will not squeeze into a size 16) and autistic. This is where the ethical conundrum comes in. Tommy Hilfiger, the man is on the board of Autism Speaks.

Autism Speaks is an organization that is deeply unpopular with actually autistic people. (I’ve written about it before so I won’t rehash it all here). Sufficed it to say, I have serious issues with the charity and do not want to support them or people associated with them.

Yet, I cannot tell people not to buy Tommy Adaptive clothing and I cannot even say that I won’t buy any myself. Disabled people have so few options that we do not have the benefit of voting with our wallets and taking our money elsewhere. We do not have the privilege of taking our business elsewhere. There is far to often no place else to take it.

Tommy Adaptive has more or less cornered the market on adaptive clothing that is not either horribly ugly or simply drab and utilitarian. They are more or less the only game in town except the town is actually the world. They provide a product which functionally can make people’s lives easier and which makes them look good in the process. I cannot in good conscience tell people to not take advantage of that if they are able.

All I can do is scream into the void my rage that there are so few options that people are put into the position of having to support companies that they find morally repugnant because there are no alternatives. I am just as furious that the few options that are available are often limited to specific geographical regions and that even if we live in those places that we are relegated to shopping on the internet because products for us are not available in the same way comparable products are available to nondisabled people.

Accessible fashion is unfortunately far too frequently not accessible at all. Yet, these brands are publicly lauded for considering us at all even as they are designed and marketed to keep us separate.

 

 

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Euphemisms for Disability are Infantalizing

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Image Description: a hand places disability label cards onto illustrations of children. Still taken from this youtube video

 

I have written about the importance of language as it relates to disability before. To oppose the idea that clear language should be avoided in favour of what can best be described as pretending difference doesn’t exist to opposing the replacement of clear language with euphemisms.

Euphemisms are rampant in disability discourse. There is this misguided idea that disability must be softened and made palatable.

This comes from general assumptions that the word disabled is negative and shouldn’t be used to describe people and from watching words that relate to disability be adopted by society as insults.

The best example of this can be seen in the evolution of language around intellectual disability. In the early, to mid-20th-century people began to realize that language utilized to describe intellectual disability had been adopted by the dominant population as insults. Words such as idiot and moron which had been medical terms are now commonly used with the intent to offend. In order to combat this, a new term was adopted in order to have an accurate medical term which was not tainted by having become an insult. That word was “retard”. This word two has long since become an insult and there is a movement to have it struck from the lexicon.

As new words became insults, the search for new language continued but instead of changing direct medical terminology people began substituting euphemisms. Terms like “special needs”, “differently abled”, “physically/mentally challenged” and “diffabled” etc. began being used in an attempt to distance disabled people from the way language continued to be used to stigmatize disability.

The thing is though, this doesn’t work. While language has become a way to stigmatize disability by weaponizing it against both the people it was initially meant to simply describe and the general population along with inanimate objects. Basically, anything that causes people displeasure might now be described with a word originally intended to describe disability.

This really isn’t particularly surprising, the problem has never been language until it was used as a weapon. The problem was that disabled people are stigmatized and as a result, things associated with them including language become associated with that stigma.
And yet, many people continue to look for the right kind of faux positive wording that will magically erase centuries of systemic prejudice without actually engaging and challenging the core of that prejudice.

Members of the disability community have fought against the lack of clarity and reductionist nature of euphemisms by reclaiming a disabled identity and intentionally using the word disabled. Disability rights activist Lawrence Carter-Long created the #saytheword campaign to advocate for using the word disabled.

Despite this, many people outside the disability community and even some within it continue to hope that they can find that magical term which will somehow unlink language associated with disability from the stigma associated with disabled people.

I have repeatedly, made all of the arguments about how euphemisms for disability simply do not work how they undermine clarity and reinforce negative associations with disability by going to such ridiculous lengths to so much as mention disability. What I’ve been thinking about most lately in regards to euphemisms, however, is simply how infantalizing they are.

Euphemisms used for disability are either overly cutesy like “special needs” or linguistically awkward such as “differently abled”. Often they are a combination of the two like “diffabled”. A friend just posted on Twitter that they had also just heard a new term “specially abled” which again combines linguistic awkwardness with overly cutesy language. I am uncomfortable with all of it.

I am a 30-year-old woman and I cannot think of a single professional setting in which I need to discuss issues pertaining to my disability such as accommodation where I would go into that situation and say,

“Hi, I have special needs and I need to discuss workplace accommodations”

Or

“Hi, I’m diffabled, who do I talk to about getting speech to text software on my computer”

These terms have no place in a professional or academic environment. They sound childish and are ultimately confusing. The term “diffabled” is so awkward that it may simply be interpreted that the speaker has simply stumbled over the word disabled. Even if it is heard and received as intended completely lacks clarity and people might be confused.

There is also the very important reality that terms like disabled have legal meanings that come with legal protections such as rights to accommodation and dancing around with euphemisms could very likely create barriers to accessing those accommodations.
Cutesy language is for children but terms like “special needs” and “differently abled” are not words that we are meant to grow out of and find the appropriate terms and adulthood. These are words some people advocate should replace clearer words.
I can only surmise that whoever came up with these words genuinely does not expect anyone that these words describe to actually grow up. To actually have to interact in the adult world and present words that seem fit only to coo in a high-pitched voice at an infant about something other than disability.

So, in addition to rejecting the word disabled, euphemisms for disability are also creating cultural understandings of disability and those understandings do not support prolonged inclusion. They are fundamentally inconsistent with being taken seriously as an adult.

Their positivity is only true in the context of presenting disabled people as children.
In the end, euphemisms reinforce the very thing that they were created to challenge.

They reinforce negative understandings of disability and maintain false impression that disabled people are eternal children.

 

This is an inappropriate burden to place on any disabled person. Shifting from insults to being framed in childish terms is not an improvement.

It certainly hasn’t done anything to challenge the ingrained systemic prejudice disabled people face. If anything it has added to it.

#saytheword

 

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