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

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.

Why I Don’t Use People First Language: A Brief History of My Relationship with the Language and Disability

I am going to be clear up front, this is NOT a condemnation of person first language or the people that use it. I always endeavor to refer to people respectfully which includes using their preferred labels. This is rather a case of personal opinion and a reflection on how the language of disability is structured and created.

If you live in North America and you have any sort of connection to the disability community, you have probably come into contact with ideas around the politics of language. By this I mean how people want to be referred to if their disability is being referenced. The biggest and most outspoken contingent is for “people first” language (person with a disability, person with autism, etc.). If you look at disability etiquette guides you may even be commanded to use people first language and discouraged from using terms like disabled person.

The latter is my personal preference and oddly enough, were I to be live in the UK, those same language etiquette guides would agree. Interestingly their rationalization is very similar to that of arguments for people first language. The individual is paramount in language framing. An individual should not be defined by their diagnosis. They discourage using terms like “the disabled” or any other language where the person’s humanity is erased.

If the reasons are the same why is the conclusion different?

In North America disability is mostly defined in society through a purely medical perspective. Disability equals a disease that must be stopped and is the source of suffering in the individual. Disability is often permanent and no one wants to have focus on them based around the assumption that they are medical balls of suffering rather than as people. Hence trying to focus on the supremacy of humanity first in rhetoric to distance themselves from the negative connotations of the disabilities they are permanently connected to.

Language in the United Kingdom is based more around defining disability as a social experience where often the most limiting barriers are not people’s diagnoses but rather the fact that society is full of physical and social barriers that limit the disabled person’s ability to participate fully in society. In this way disability is not just a medical diagnosis but an experience of social exclusion. Putting disabled first functions as a description of the experience of social oppression.

That may sound complicated and more than a little convoluted and it is. While in my experience, I am far more limited by socially created physical and social barriers than I am in what I cannot do, I recognize that for others while they share my experience of social exclusion, they do have personal experiences of disability removed from social life that may cause them suffering or hardship.

So there are these two dominant points of view and I find both of them flawed so why go why choose between the two instead of choosing something else like special needs, differently-abled, etc.. Short answer I find both innacurate and condescending (why, is another post entirely).

Long answer, the language around how to describe disability changes often. These changes are usually a reaction to the fact that the existing terminology has become something more than just a medical description and this something more consists of turning medical terms into insults. These insults were and are used to directly insult the people they are supposed to describe.

This is most evident in terms used for people with intellectual disabilities. They used to be classified as idiots, morons, imbeciles and cretins. All those words have actual medical definitions and are not in fact just synonyms for stupid. That is however, how they came to be used. In direct response to this the medical profession decided to find a new word. One that wouldn’t have the negative connotations of insults. The word they chose as a catchall to replace them was retarded.

A word currently so offensive and stigmatizing that there is a movement to have it removed from public usage.

Other disabilities are not immune to to being reduced to insults. Statements like “are you blind?”, “are you deaf?” or”That’s lame” all have connections to descriptions of disability and certainly aren’t meant kindly.

That’s when they stopped using medical terminology and started adopting euphemisms like “special needs” and “differently-abled”

The idea being that the language itself was causing the stigma and if disability either the word itself or a diagnosis was removed it would both remove linguistic stigma and create positive non-medical terminology.

This to was a failure “special needs” is used as an insult, The main premise that it was the language that created a stigma towards the people. In reality it is the people who are stigmatized and any word used to label us will by association be viewed negatively. They could change the dominant preferred label to ” fluffy bunnies” tomorrow and the most likely result would be that sales of pet rabbits would plummet rather than our benefiting from positive associations with cute animals.

This is why disability has returned as a label so long as it’s attached to person as a qualifier. In my opinion word order is irrelevant. Until the stigma attached to actual disabled people is tackled, we can call ourselves whatever we want, the oppression we experience will not save us.

That is not to say that mindful language choices are not important. Negative associations with words that describe disability should absolutely be challenged.

But so far as having a single supreme, universally accepted label is concerned, I don’t think uniformity is necessary. In fact linguistic deviance may help challenge people to think about why they use the language they do and may spark a conversation that goes beyond labels and looks at the people that choose them.

For me choice is key. If I am going to be labeled, I am not going to just accept a term that is almost certainly created by nondisabled people, I am going to define myself.

So to conclude I prefer the term disabled person/people because it is accurate and reflects my personal experience of disability but I accept and encourage other disabled people to choose for themselves.