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.

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When Supposedly Progressive Guides to Talking About Disability Get It Wrong

So I am very passionate about the language of disability. I really want it to progress to a place where people are not misrepresented or marginalized by the language used to describe them. So I get very frustrated when nondisabled people coopt the narrative and through well intentioned ignorance set the movement for inclusive language back several paces.

Take for example this article by Merrill Perlman published on the Columbia Journalism Review titled The Proper Terminology to Use When Writing About Illnesses.

The authors stated intent is to help others use more respectful language when writing about “illness”. She fails immediately because from reading her article what she means by illness is actually disability and they are not synonymous. Disabilities are the ones she most frequently references are not diseases and should never be discussed in such terms. While some illnesses can be disabling they have distinct differences from disabilities like paralysis, cerebral palsy or down syndrome. She does briefly reference how to address a serious diagnosis (cancer). She however never differentiates between disability and disease. People with disabilities are not ill and many of us don’t want a cure, which is good because for many of us a possible cure is unlikely to surface. Illness is closely linked to suffering a word she acknowledges should not be used in conjunction with disability. I have cerebral palsy and autism and neither of these is an illness. The flu that I’ve been fighting the last few days is. Please be aware of the difference.

Her only accurate insight seems to be in what actual words should be avoided. She  counsels against using words like victim and suffering. I can agree with that.

However, her disability specific advice leaves much to be desired. She starts out with physical disability, saying,

“As a society, we’ve gotten better at accepting terminology that is less slur and more description: “Developmentally disabled” is better than “retarded,” and while “physically challenged” is still not as common as “handicapped,” it’s thankfully more common than “crippled” nowadays. We mention that a child is “adopted” less often, and usually only when it’s relevant.”

Society may be aheah of Perlman here, the reason that physically challenged isn’t used as much as she’d like is because it’s genuinely awful. If you are a third party writing about someone else please never use it. As far as I’m concerned it’s as bad as handicapped. Disabled people don’t face challenges, We face barriers. The fact that there are stairs and no ramp isn’t a challenge it’s a barrier. The fact that able-bodied people often underestimate those of this with disabilities is a barrier. Framing our lives as a challenge justifies systemic barriers because it’s much easier to believe someone can overcome a challenge than a barrier. So in keeping with the fact that Perlman wants to help, I will offer a better term:

If you are in North America use Person with a disability

If you are in the UK, Ireland, New Zealand or Australia use disabled person*

The other passage I find problematic is this,

“Where we often fail, though, is in using terms associated with illness and infirmity. “Confined to a wheelchair” or “wheelchair-bound” have appeared more than 1,000 in Nexis in the first quarter of the year. Yet those give a negative associate to the person in the wheelchair. Simpler, and more accurate, would be to say someone “uses a wheelchair.” Even better, say why the wheelchair is needed: “She has used a wheelchair since she her legs were paralyzed in a diving accident 10 years ago.””

It starts out pretty good, uses a wheelchair or wheelchair user are much preferable to wheelchair bound. I get confused however about how it is simpler to just describe the disability. No it’s really not. It comes off as voyeuristic and unnecessary. Perlman even contradicts herself later when she says that disability shouldn’t be mentioned unless it is absolutely pertinent. I am sure there are times when it is pertinent to mention that a person uses a wheelchair but the reason why is entirely irrelevant. Needing to mention a disability is not the same as needing to rehash a person’s entire back story.

I respect Perlman’s intent with her article but I question the follow through. Language is so important to how the world around us is framed. It affects how people are viewed. I will close with some additional tips for third parties (nondisabled people) writing about disability.

Don’t just avoid physically challenged when speaking generally also avoid any euphemisms like “special needs” or “differently-abled”

Be prepared for the fact that the disabled community is very diverse and opinions on personal labeling may differ from political correctness. When referring to an individual, please respect personal labels.

When in doubt try and find answers from actually disabled people.

*For an explanation of why language differs geographically see here

While Outlander is a Real Winner for Women it Totally Fails Disabled People

Colum MacKenzie complete with CGI bowed legs on able-bodied actor Gary Lewis

Colum MacKenzie complete with CGI bowed legs on able-bodied actor Gary Lewis

Outlander is returning to the Starz Network today. It is a popular series based on the novels of Diana Gabaldon. I admit I like the show. I read the books first so of course I cringe where the show deviates from the original.

The show is well made and truly entertaining. It has also been lauded for its complex portrayal of women and female sexuality. These assessments are pretty accurate though I take issue with the casting of the female lead. Jenny Trout describes her like this;

“[Caitriona] Balfe is slender, but her stomach isn’t flat and her breasts are natural. The lack of body hair is a bit disturbing, given the time period, but watching the actors together, the viewer sees two people being intimate with each other, instead of two sculpted dolls switching between acrobatic positions.”

So she not totally perfect but she is very slim, which is the standard for women on TV and in movies. In the books however, Claire is repeatedly and consistently described as curvacious. Something Balfe is decidedly not. It might have been nice for them to have diversified the bodies of their female cast but they only non thin women are either extras or characters over forty-five. So I guess it’s only a partial win for women.

The show does however completely throw disabled people under the bus. The story contains the character of Colum MacKenzie who is both disabled and the Laird. The character is in many ways a major step forward for disabled characters in television.

Colum is not a stereotype. His character is complex, his role in the story is not completely defined by his disability, though it is informed by it. He does not fall neatly into the almost universal boxes of being a saint, villain, victim or inspiration. He has both good and bad qualities and none of his character flaws or virtues are a result of his disability.

And yet despite all of that, I cringe every time he is on screen. It is extremely disappointing that the producers of this show opted to cast an able-bodied actor. Particularly because none of the usual excuses for passing over a disabled actor apply.

The character is never shown as able-bodied. There is no transition to excuse the use of cripface.

The actor Gary Lewis is not the major draw to the series and is in fact almost unrecognizable due to the hairstyles and clothing. So his star power is not required for the show to be a success.

His disability is entirely created through the use of CGI and can therefor the portrayal is not the result of acting skill.

In fact as you see in the image above, which I obtained from an episode review, the author added the word Yo in between the bowed legs to draw added attention to them. The author had this to say about the physical presentation of Colum’s disability.

“the Laird shows up at the door, surprising [Claire] with both his abrupt entrance and CGI legs. Seriously, what in the world? The special effects here are maybe a little extreme, but sure. Let’s roll with it.”

The author is presumably able-bodied as she hasn’t indicated why she would have any expertise to judge the reality of the portrayal. So by have an able-bodied actor in computer generated cripface, the show destroys its own ability to claim a realistic portrayal of disability by giving viewers the ammunition to question it.

If a disabled actor had been used, this argument would not exist. You can’t argue with the reality of a person’s actual body. rather than a picture superimposed in post production.

This is a prime example of why there needs to be actually disabled actors cast as disabled characters. Realisn cannot be achieved through imitation or computer generation. It also shows that regardless of how accurate those CGI legs were (and I’m not competent judge), they allow nondisabled people to dismiss the possibility that for someone, that this might be their real body and real lived experience.

Hey People: Diagnoses are Nouns not Adjectives

As I have written about before, language usage is important when considering how disabled people are viewed and portrayed in society. While I personally prefer to not use person first language, there is one situation where the person should always come first. This is when an actual diagnosis is being discussed. I will demonstrate:

Person with Cerebral Palsy

Person with Down Syndrome

Person with Spina Bifida

and so on.

This should be self evident because both the word person and the diagnosis are nouns, and yet this simple grammatical concept is to complicated for a lot of people. Today, I read this. The headline reads

Kiwi expat family take cerebal palsy son’s discrimination case to UN

What the fuck? Cerebral Palsy is a noun, it is the name of a medical diagnosis. It is not now nor has it ever been an adjective. It can’t even be made into one as Autism can be made into autistic (most autistic people are totally fine with being called autistic but people with other diagnoses that can be made into descriptors like Schizophrenia really hate it and you should all respect that).

This is far from the first time, I have seen this severe lapse in grammar. It often happens to people with Down Syndrom2 for example here and here. Bless Google for knowing this is terrible. while I was searching for the examples, I knew were plentiful, my top results were for articles with correct person first phrases “man with Down Syndrome” or “child with down syndrome”. Even so, it didn’t take much scrolling before I found examples of the offending phrases. To add insult to injury, the second example is a story about a young man with Down’s who was killed by police. Even in death he can’t have his humanity recognized

By trying to turn a noun into an adjective, you are going to both fail and give that noun precedence of place. By putting it before the person you are giving it ownership of that person and denying their humanity and individuality. So in future check your grammar and remember that diagnoses are not descriptions of people but are things that people have.

Proof that “Positive” Euphemisms for Disability Just Don’t Work

In the last couple of decades the language surrounding disability has become very fluid, less specific and just generally vague because “disability” is seen as a dirty word whose associations have negative affects on the people to whom it’s applied. In a move that fools exactly no one supposedly positive euphemisms have been introduced to replace referring to people as disabled. Words like “differently-abled” and “special needs”. These terms are suppose to reduce the stigma associated with disability by framing disabled people with positive language.

Does it work?

Nope!

Comparisons to and associations with disability are still considered offensive to nondisabled people.

Take for example the fact that Anglophone Quebec residents (a minority in the province) warranted an apology when a provincial website referred to English language users as Quebecers with special-needs.  An error that has blamed on poor translation.

In a bilingual country, translation errors occur all the time and are usually corrected without incident. However when that error accidentally associates a large group of people with disability it makes national news.

Considering the real tensions between francophone and anglophone Quebecers this will be seen as a slight to the Anglo minority. If a possible and likely translation error that inaccurately associates a majority nondisabled group with disability causes enough controversy to be covered by the news, the term is not functioning as intended.

Associations with disability even when accidental are still causing offense even with so called “positive” language.

Time to do away with the misleading and lazy language and deal with the real stigma and prejudice.

When Your Disability isn’t Considered in Grade School

I have hemiplegic cerebral palsy and am on the autism spectrum. I wasn’t diagnosed with the latter until I was eighteen and had already graduated high school. In some ways the total lack of knowledge my parents had about cerebral palsy contributed to this lack of diagnosis. My extreme sensitivity to touch and textures was attributed to my CP. My behavioural issues were never linked to my hyper-sensory issues and as such was generally considered to be poorly behaved and to have issues with anger management.

So though my autism absolutely affected my grade school experience, it was not something my parents or teachers were aware of. So for the purposes of this post, I am going to focus mainly on how having CP affected my experience of government mandated education.

Doctors would often describe my cerebral palsy as mild. As far as I can tell that mostly just boils down to the fact that I can walk without the assistance of a cane or walker and can climb a flight of stairs.

Having a disability that has been labeled as mild by the medical establishment also seems to have the added pressure of being considered “not disabled enough” to need accommodations.

When disability and education are discussed it usually follows one of two streams.

Inclusive education: where disabled and nondisabled students are taught together with added supports for the disabled students.

Or Segregation: where disabled students are taught separately from their nondisabled peers.

Each group has their pros and cons and supporters or detractors.

In my case neither of these scenarios was even considered. I was just dropped into a school that had no supports for disabled students. I was one of only two students in the school with a disability. The other was in the English stream whereas I was in French immersion, so while we were aware of the other, we had little contact with one another. We might as well have been attending different schools.

Because my disability wasn’t really considered to be something that required consideration or accommodation, it was never discussed that I might face physical barriers to access the school or activities. As such when I encountered them it never occurred to me that I could or should complain or demand access. I was already being viciously bullied by the other students and was keenly aware that if I mentioned my difficulties, I would just be further separating myself from my classmates.

As I have mentioned in a previous post, one of the issues I encountered at this school was an inability to use the sinks in the school bathroom. This being the early 1990s, those motion sensor taps hadn’t been invented yet so in order to conserve water, the school installed sinks that had rounded knobs that stopped the flow of water as soon as you let go of them. I did not have the hand dexterity or strength to use those taps. It never even occurred to me that I should complain. I thought that the inaccessibility was normal and acceptable.

Other than that in those early years my difficulties came up when scissors or tracing were involved. I could not hold objects still with my weaker limb in order to trace a object or cut it with my dominant hand. I had a lot of particularly sloppy looking art projects as a child.

Gym class was generally awful at both my elementary schools but there was a situation at this first school that was particularly bad and occurred because my disability was never considered and I was expected to just be abe to do everything that my able-bodied peers could.

It happened in grade 5 which was also the year I insisted on transferring schools. The teacher had planned an alternate gym activity. We were going to ski in the playground.

All the other children put on their skis and immediately began racing down the low hill that the school was built on. I on the other hand found that as soon as I put on the skis (which were poorly sized to my small frame) that I was immobile. My left leg was to weak to get me moving. I quickly fell down. I decided the best course of action was to just stay still until the class was over. Unfortunately the teacher noticed my nonparticipation and demanded to know why.

I explained that I wasn’t able to ski but assured her I was fine and didn’t mind. She however concluded that if I couldn’t ski than no one could. Against my pleading, she recalled my classmates told them the fun was over and even pointed to me as the cause.

My peers spent the rest of the day making it very clear that they were less than impressed that I had ruined their fun.

I could have easily just played outdoors without skis, there were several sleds at school as sliding down the hill in Winter was a common recess pass time but instead, I was made the scapegoat for my teacher’s lack of imagination or consideration.

Unfortunately my move to a new school later that year did nothing to improve my situation as I became the only disabled student in the entire school, a trend that continued into high school.

While in high school, I continued to have the expected issues in gym class, where my lack of athletic ability was further highlighted because my school had added a points system to the curriculum. Our performance was publicly displayed on a chart where I was placed dead last by a wide margin. These placements were supposed to be anonymous but were most definitely anything but. The comparison was supposed to incite competition but was really more of a ranking system.

High school gym was where I first really advocated for myself but it did not come from a new found sense of entitlement to access and inclusion. It came from a real fear that if I participated in the outdoor rollerblading class that I would risk real and serious injury. I had to spend the entire class sitting in the change room while I waited for the others to return.

The class that actually had some of the worst access in high school was actually Grade 9 & 10 Science. My social isolation followed me from elementary to high school and when it came time to find a partner in science class, I was frozen out. There was an odd number of students so I was left out. I tried to find a pair who would let me work with them but was repeatedly refused. I asked the teacher to assign me to a pair but he felt that it was not his responsibility. I was thus forced to work alone. I had to try to complete experiments that had been designed for two able-bodied people alone and with only one fully functioning hand.

This continued with me underperforming my experiments until due to my lack of dexterity I burned myself with hydrochloric acid. It would have continued beyond that because my teacher remained unmoved by my obvious disadvantage but finally a pair in the class took pity on me and allowed me to work with them.

My troubles in science class weren’t over though. When we started doing experiments where our findings had to be written in charts that we had to draw by hand with a ruler to our teachers precise specifications. As I have mentioned, I don’t trace well, I can’t hold a ruler steady so my charts looked sloppy and I began to lose marks for presentation even if my findings were correct.

I explained the reason for my difficulties and asked if I could make the charts on the computer in advance and fill in printed sheets by hand. I was refused.

My request in no way threatened the academic integrity of the experiment and would have stopped me losing marks for something other than a wrong answer but I was refused and that refusal did not come with a justification.

I never complained to the school, I don’t even think I mentioned it to my parents at the time. It never occurred to me that that complaining was an option. I didn’t know I had the legal right to accommodation.

The reason I did not know this was because I had been completely isolated from other disabled people and to the adults around me this was seen as a good thing.

In an ableist society, a disabled person’s value is determined by how little effect their presence has on the nondisabled people around them. This creates a hierarchy of disability that is often internalized inside the disability community. The fewer accommodations you need or reject using despite need means you have more value. You are less of a burden.

The more obvious your disability or the more you are seen as part of the larger group of disabled peopled, the less value you have. This is a systemic problem and often leads to disabled people comparing themselves to others and finding the others wanting.

People brag about the accommodations they don’t use. This reinforces the idea that needing and accepting accommodations makes you lesser.

I categorically reject this idea because I have experienced the harm and marginalization that is the result of being denied the help I need to succeed.

My experience has also made me acutely aware of the harm that total isolation from disabled peers can cause. I never knew any better and that ignorance did not mitigate the harm I experienced through lack of physical or social access. Perhaps if I had been aware of other disabled children, I might have known to fight back against those instances of oppression where changes could be made.

In my isolation, I never knew that change was even possible.

Open Letter to People Who Want to Pray that I be Healed

Dear Religious Person

I am writing this in response to your unsolicited offer to pray that God will heal me of my disability.

Thank you so much for your unsolicited concern for my health while I was just going about my day. I may have been doing any of the following.

Walking home from school

Running to catch the bus

Having coffee with friends

Existing in public for any reason that has never been for the purpose of attracting the pity and concern of random strange people whose faith I don’t actually share.

Does your prayer go something like this?

Dear God

I am told that you are an omniscient and faultless deity but I saw something today and I think a cosmic mistake may have been made.

God, you may not believe this but I saw a disabled person today and it was very distressing. I mean being disabled must be awful. They can’t go everywhere i can. They can’t come to my house because there are steps to reach the door. I mean this one could walk and wasn’t in a wheelchair so she probably could but she had this unsightly leg brace and stairs can’t be easy. She must feel so alone. I don’t see people like her often. There are no people like that at my church or job.

I just know that the only thing that will make her life better if she was more like me. I have already approached her and explained that I understand her pain. I have also explained that the only possible solution is Jesus. There are no earthly steps that could ever improve her life so long as she is disabled.

So God, Please help me help her by granting my prayer. It would make me so happy to know that she isn’t suffering anymore.

Amen

I’m sure that prayer made you feel so much better. You tried.

I however would suggest for you a different prayer. In future before you interrupt someone just living their life to point out their fundamental difference from yourself. Try and avoid suggesting that they are flawed and in need of fixing. Instead say this prayer.

Dear God

Please help to to create a world where all people are welcome and accepted. Particularly God help me to create a world where other people do not have to fundamentally change their natural selves to make me more comfortable.

Amen

If you are unable to do the latter. Feel free to pray for me. Just keep it to yourself. I’m sure they will be just as effective.

Sincerely,

Someone who just wants to get from A to B without incident