Something that I see coming up a lot in discussions about language is the argument that, by asking people to refrain from using words that refer to disability as pejoratives because they reinforce the idea that disability is categorically bad, people engaging in discussions about language are saying that disability is a bed of roses with a unicorn and a platter of cupcakes on the side. This is, as I said in a recent ‘Today in Journalism,’ so not true, and I wanted to pull that discussion out of that post, because it’s important, and it deserves its own post:
The thing about terms like ‘suffers from’ and ‘victim of’ is that if someone self identifies with them, that’s fine. But when they get used as generic terms to refer to people with disabilities in general, it sets a precedent. It tells people that disability is suffering, and that people with disabilities are victims. The reason that we ask people to use neutral language when talking about disability is not because we want to tell other people how to feel about their disabilities, but because we don’t want to tell nondisabled people to think negatively about disability.
This is an important thing, when talking about language. There’s a big difference between identifying with a term and using it, and using a term in general to refer to everyone like you, or, in the case of nondisabled people, using a term you’ve heard someone use as self identification to refer to everyone like that person. If the media presented disability in neutral terms, ‘The locals known Ray Magallan, a man with cerebral palsy who…,’ it allows readers to approach the article with neutrality. But here, from the very start, the subject of the article is a victim.
Asking people to think about the language they use generally is not about telling people that all disabilities are awesome! And terrific! And superfun! Nor is it about telling people how they should feel about their disabilities. What it’s about is working towards the neutral place: The place where disability in general is value neutral, rather than universally good or bad.
Speaking for myself and myself only, there are some things about my disabilities that I like, and that I am glad to have as part of my identity. There are other things about my disabilities that I dislike, and strongly wish would Go Away. And there are a lot of things that just are, that I don’t feel strongly about one way or the other. I don’t like society assigning values to my identities, or deciding that because I feel a particular way about a specific disability, all people who share that disability must feel like I do; I want society to view them neutrally, and that’s one of the reasons that I want to get people thinking about the language they use and how they use it.
The language isn’t the problem. It’s the underlying attitudes that are the problem. Disability is used as a shorthand for ‘bad’ because it is understood to be bad. The goal here is not to try and effect a switch, to disability as ‘good,’ but to get people to view it neutrally, and to allow individual people with disabled identities to shape their own approach to disability. To give people autonomy, and to make nondisabled people understand that when one person says ‘I hate my disabilities’ that person is speaking for ouself, just as the person who says ‘I love my disabilities’ is also speaking for ouself.
It’s also, of course, about getting people to confront the role of ableism in their lives, and to look at how it manifests, but that’s only one facet of conversations about language. People who are stuck on ‘oh, I need to just not use these words’ are missing the much larger discussion, that these words are code for attitudes and beliefs, and that when we talk about these words, we confront those beliefs. By working towards disability as neutral, we are allowing many people with disabilities self determination and autonomy, although not all people with disabilities will necessarily agree that working towards the neutral place is a shared goal, or even something that should happen at all.
Telling a person with disabilities who identifies ou personal experience as difficult, or painful, or unpleasant, or frustrating, or simply bad: ‘how can you say disability is bad!’ is every bit as policing as calling disability in general a tragedy, because it’s denying someone’s lived experience, and it’s denying something that someone is articulating right in front of you. Someone who hates ou disabilities or who hates aspects of them isn’t ‘betraying the movement’ or ‘wrong,’ and the goal of language discussions isn’t to hound people who feel that way into changing their minds about how they feel about their bodies and brains.
It’s about creating a space for everyone, a space where people can self identify how they like, and feel the way they like, without being judged or shamed not just by society, but also by fellow people with disabilities. There is room for all identities and lines of thought in a world where disability is a neutral identity, and people are allowed to shape it and feel about it the way they want to, rather than being pressured to perform, think, and believe in a particular way for the benefit of others.