Please Stop Simultaneously Bringing Attention to and Minimizing Examples of Passive Oppression

First off lets define what I mean by passive oppression. I am referring to those instances of bigotry that people unaffected by the oppression don’t see as problematic. These actions are usually brushed off with a “oh I didn’t mean it that way” or “It was Just a joke, lighten up”. The thing that makes passive oppression so insidious is that people don’t take it seriously and the ideas that they perpetuate get normalized and robs the people affected of being able to define what is and isn’t harmful to them.

Perhaps one of the most common forms of passive oppression is how euphemisms or words that describe either a psychiatric diagnosis or a person with a psychiatric diagnosis are more commonly used to describe things or social situations that are in fact entirely unrelated to mental illness. This is most frequently used in negative connotations but it is not uncommon to hear defenses that the terms were being used positively.

This was most recently highlighted by HBO show host John Oliver when he condemned the practice in a segment on his show Last Week Tonight.

The point is easy to see in the context of how people with psychiatric diagnoses are unfairly stigmatized in relation to acts of violence. But what happens when is occurs in the the cute and fuzzy realm of celebrating Christmas?

This Huffington Post piece talks about how Target is experiencing some backlash for selling a sweater that reads “OCD Obsessive Christmas Disorder”. Some people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, the condition that the sweater is referencing are justifiably unimpressed with how the co-opting of the Acronym and clear reference to the diagnosis, minimizes their experiences.

This is where the “we didn’t mean it like that” mentality rears its ugly head. As Target has released a faux apology and refused to stop selling the sweaters.

For the most part the Huffington Post does a decent job of covering the controversy, they share the voices of those impacted and then share Target’s response. Were the article gets sketchy is in the last two sentences.

Between this and the Starbucks Christmas cups controversy, it looks like the holidays are off to a rocky start.

So what do you think? Is this sweater offensive? Or are people being too sensitive? Sound off in the comments below.

I’ll seal with the last sentence first. Simply by inviting people to debate whether people have the right to feel offended by the sweater is deeply problematic. It effectively polices people who particularly in this case are already marginalized by invalidating their right to have and express genuine emotions.

The issue that truly minimizes the effect of passive oppression here though is how the article ends by connecting this issue with the “controversy” of how the Star Bucks Christmas cup that isn’t Christmasy enough for some people.

I bring this up not to shame those who are offended by the cup. I won’t police people’s reactions to things (even though I have an opinion on it). The big issue here is not to debate whether Christianity is under attack and whether Christians are oppressed in North America, they’re not (don’t believe me? read this take-down by an actual Christian on why this Star Bucks situation is ridiculous) but rather to place the debate around the Target Sweater and the Christmas cups in the same frame.

Regardless of which side of the cup debate you are on it is hard to deny that the most common reaction to the issue is one of derision and mockery. By placing the sweater debate in that context it is basically saying the offense over it is unwarranted.

That framing in conjunction with the invitation to debate whether the offense is an over-reaction effectively minimizes the issue the article was bringing attention to.

Add to that the fact that it isn’t hard to argue that Star Bucks is not oppressing Christians by having a still clearly Christmas themed cup (consider the time frame in which it is available and the colours which are clearly associated with Christmas). The conclusion to the Huffington Post article is basically an invitation to disregard the entirely different situation involving target. People with psychiatric diagnoses are much more objectively oppressed in society.

So while I won’t tell people how they can or cannot feel on either issue. In the case of Target I will say that if you are not a person with a DSM diagnosis, your opinion doesn’t matter and you absolutely don’t get to say whether someone is over-reacting to something that does actually affect them.


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?


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.

Why saying “Everyone has some kind of Disability” is a Lie

It’s not an uncommon refrain when trying to build empathy for disabled people, just say “Everyone has some kind of disability, some are just more obvious than others. All kinds of people say this. Hell, I distinctly recall uttering myself one day during a planned day of disability education in fifth grade. A day that was not triggered by the curriculum but by my being publicly shamed by my teacher for wanting to do my science project on the physics of accessibility using the school as a model (somehow this isn’t science apparently, I’m still not clear on why though). My mother called the school to complain about my public humiliation, triggering the public education day. I still had to come up with a different topic for the science fair.

The education day in hindsight was utterly cringe worthy. As the only physically disabled student in the school (a feat only achieved because I don’t use a wheelchair) and the reason for the need of education in the first place.

I don’t remember most of what I said other than the platitude that I now advocate against. The day was otherwise filled with experiments meant to create empathy. They made us wear glasses smeared with toothpaste to emulate blindness and put us in noise cancelling headphones.

The day concluded on the students having wheelchair races around the playground. This actually only served to highlight my own disability because I’m hemiplegic and my left side is weaker than my right. I couldn’t actually propel myself forward. The best I could do was sort of turn in a circle.

My peers were never presented with stairs because that elementary oddly didn’t have any despite a universally ambulatory student population. Disabilities were just games they could put on and take off. Studies have since shown that this kind of empathy building doesn’t actually work and may do actual harm to how others perceive the disabled experience.

Hindsight being 20/20, I now cringe when I think back on that day. I also know why in my plea for acceptance to my classmates, I said those horribly inaccurate words “everyone has some kind of disability, some are just more obvious than others”. I wanted to be part of the group, I wanted to be seen as just like them. The problem is that I wasn’t and uttering those words did not give me access to them.

This was actually my second elementary school, at the first one I attended, I couldn’t even wash my hands after using the washroom. The sinks in that school were designed to conserve water and it was before the days of motion sensors. You had to keep holding on to the round tap for water to flow. When you let go the water stopped. My left hand was to weak. I could therefor only wash my left hand but not my right.

At both school’s I attended gym class was often a nightmare, I was always picked last for team sports (yes I know, not a uniquely disabled experience). Social exclusion got worse when we started learning volleyball. I was physically incapable of underhand serves which were mandatory. Instead of allowing me to skip serving or teaching and allowing me to serve overhand, I was paired with the nearest student who would balance the ball in front of me while I swung at it. This is not an effective serving technique and my peers resented having to do it. I know because they were vocal about it. I was horribly bullied for this and any other excuse the other kids could come up with. This was the reason I changed schools. Not because my first school was inaccessible but because of bullies. A problem that was unfortunately not solved by changing schools.

People resent (then and now) that I and other disabled people do things differently or are incapable of some tasks. I am also on the autism spectrum (I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 18) which can be accompanied by learning disabilities, which is true in my case. After getting academic accommodations in university my grades improved significantly. One of my accommodations was to have someone take notes for me so that I could concentrate fully on lectures and discussion. People who found out would often remark “of course, you do better with a note taker, everyone would” This is actually not true. Generally note taking improves an individual’s retention of the material, particularly if those notes are taken with pen and paper. You are made to feel that you are getting an unfair advantage when in fact you are just rectifying a noted disadvantage. I was once told by a peer who discovered I had a note taker (these things are supposed to be confidential but rarely remain that way) that I shouldn’t be allowed in university if I couldn’t do things exactly the same as everyone else.

I could go on with so many more examples of how being disabled results in both physical and social barriers to accessing public spaces and common social experiences like public school and university. These types of experiences are not exclusive to me, they are common experiences of disabled people everywhere and they often get worse or have more major consequences than public humiliation and rude comments.

So what does this all have to do with the line “everyone has some kind of disability”? Well it’s this, Some nondisabled people internalize this rhetoric and use it to make their common place and not actually disabling problems seem like metaphors for real actual disability. Telegraph Journalist Josephine Fairley albeit jokingly wrote

“writing this from the standpoint of someone with two legs and two arms whose only (small) disability seems to be that the bit of my brain which can process instruction manuals appears to be entirely absent.”

Having difficulty understanding instruction manuals is not a disability, in fact it is a pretty common issue. She uses this as a jumping off point to condemn actual disabled people who don’t like the trend in the media of making disabled people into inspirations. I’m not going to debate that issue in this post because it’s off topic. The main point to take away here is that a self described able-bodied person is using that position of privilege to first claim kinship with disabled people over a difficulty to understand instruction manuals. She then talks over actually disabled people, treating their opinions are wrong and misguided even though they and not she have to live with the consequences and results of what she advocates for.

In my own experience people have been less tongue-in-cheek about it than Fairley is. I have had people sincerely claim that being an introvert is a disability (it’s not check the DSM V if you don’t believe me) or that their ignorance of their own privilege and its tendency to result in them expressing themselves in oppressive (not just ableist but racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.) ways must be overlooked because they can’t help it. They are both capable of knowing its wrong but unwilling to actually trying to change.

Not everyone is disabled, saying they are does not create a bond or empathy. Equating things like occasional clumsiness to a mobility impair regardless of good intentioned motives is false equivalence. This false equivalence must end because instead of helping build empathy it is actually destroying it. It is just giving non-disabled people another weapon with which they can hide behind to continue talking over us or continue to oppress us while claiming solidarity.