- Ableist Word Profile is an ongoing FWD/Forward series in which we explore ableism and the way it manifests in language usage.
- Here’s what this series is about: Examining word origins, the way in which ableism is unconsciously reinforced, the power that language has.
- Here’s what this series is not about: Telling people which words they can use to define their own experiences, rejecting reclamatory word usage, telling people which words they can and cannot use.
- You don’t necessarily have to agree that a particular profiled word or phrase is ableist; we ask you to think about the way in which the language that we use is influenced, both historically and currently, by ableist thought.
- Please note that this post contains ableist language used for the purpose of discussion and criticism; you can get an idea from the title of the kind of ableist language which is going to be included in the discussion, and if that type of language is upsetting or triggering for you, you may want to skip this post.
A month and a half ago I wrote a fairly angry email to Ms Magazine blog [which you can read here - yes, I sent it to them, no, I never got a response]. While part of my ire was raised by the subject matter and the treatment of people with disabilities as unthinking pawns of the “religious right”, a significant portion was because of the casual use of “the disabled”.
The short form of why this is a problem: People with disabilities/the disabled are not a collective group that all agree on anything. Asking what “the disabled” want or “the disabled” are doing is exactly like asking what “women” want and what “women” are doing. Women are individuals. Some of them are women with disabilities! We don’t all want the same things, but grouping everyone under the same umbrella, as though we are a Collective rather than Individuals With Opinions and Needs is… well, it’s pretty damned ableist, as well as being arrogant, ignorant, and irritating.
We’re still living in a society that makes a lot of casual assumptions about people with disabilities and their experiences. When people start talking about “the disabled” they are generally about to launch into some sort of stereotype – “the disabled are the pawns of the religious right”, for example. This boils down a lot of complicated people – people who have a wide variety of needs, wants, opinions, thoughts, and experiences – into one homogeneous group.
This contributes to the de-humanization of disabled people. “The disabled” aren’t people, they’re a big collective noun who can’t be reasoned with, can’t be talked to, can’t be considered – they’re just to be placated, and dealt with, and put out of our minds as quickly as possible in case they sue us.
Saying “people with disabilities” or “disabled people” may seem like a pretty minor thing. It is, so it shouldn’t be that difficult. The reason for it, though, is that it can be that small reminder: that people with disabilities are people. That disabled people have opinions and thoughts and experiences and needs that are not universal to all people with disabilities. That we are, in fact, people, and it would be nice if we could be treated as such.
Language doesn’t change everything. It isn’t an end in and of itself. But it can be the first step in combating the sort of ableism that makes it okay for many people – including editors and writers for major and minor news sources – to dismiss us as pawns without thought.
See Also: Disability Terminology: A Starter Kit for Nondisabled People and the Media by meloukhia at Feministe.