Category Archives: language
According to the United State government, disability is “the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s) which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” Or, in non-regulatory terms, disability is when a physical or mental impairment will last at least a year and will make someone unable to work. The ability to work is right there in the definition. A person who cannot work is disabled. If that person can work, they are not disabled. Disability and employability are mutually exclusive states of being.
That definition comes from the Social Security Administration and is applied to people applying for disability benefits, basically a wage replacement program to compensate for the salary the person cannot earn – so the focus on employability makes some sense. But more and more, I see this framework for defining and evaluating disability applied outside the benefits context, in deciding if someone is “‘really’ disabled.” It’s also notable that these wage replacement programs are the most commonly known and discussed form of disability-based benefits – while I’m used to seeing articles about how to handle the Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI) program, I rarely see coverage of programs from the Department of Rehabilitations, which provides vocational training and support to PWDs. And the false equivalence of disability and unemployability is problematic for a lot of reasons.
- There are a whole lot of people with disabilities who are not employed due to problems with the economy and with employers who discriminate against PWDs when hiring or fail to sufficient accommodate PWDs while employed. Assuming that unemployment is due solely to a person’s disability status, rather than systemic stigma and discrimination, places the responsibility for finding and keeping a job solely on the shoulders of the PWD. This shifts focus entirely away from the employers who have ultimate power over whether an individual is going to have a job. Take a look at employment statistics for the federal government itself, where “the severely disabled represent 0.94 percent of the government’s workforce.” And despite those low numbers, the government has no problem telling people that unemployment is a disability issue.
- When disability is defined as an inability to work, that overlooks an enormous segment of people with disabilities. About 37% of PWDs in the United States are employed – 8,581,869 people. But their ability to work does not negate or erase their disabilities. Those disabilities continue to exist and implying they do not lets employers off the hook for acknowledging and accommodating those disabilities in the workplace. It is already easy for an employer to overlook an informal request for accommodation or demand overbroad access to private medical files to “prove” whether or not the requesting employee “actually” has a disability in response to an accommodation request. It’s impossible to say how many employed PWDs have successfully requested and received needed accommodations relative to those who have been too intimidated to ask or had employers unwilling to fulfill their legal obligation to provide accommodations. But I would venture to guess that it’s quite difficult and involves risk for the individual employee. The stereotype that people who can work are not disabled and do not “really” need or deserve accommodation only encourages this behavior.
- In our society, employability is often equated with worth and value on a fundamental level. In the current bad economy, lots of people have been losing their jobs, and half of them feel that being unemployed has changed their lives for the worse. Being unemployed is seen as shameful, humiliating, a sort of failure to grow up and develop into a “real person.” Obviously, having “disabled” be seen as a synonym for something with those negative connotations does a disservice to people in both groups.
Dear Imprudence: Dan Savage, Savage Love, and “That’s Retarded” (Hint, Dan, “Leotarded” Is Just As Unacceptable)
One of the things which inspired the “Dear Imprudence” column here at FWD was the Savage Love column from 30 April, 2009, in which a reader sent in a letter politely asking Dan to stop using “retarded” as an insult. abby jean kindly covered “retarded” for the Ableist Word Profile, explaining the origins of the word and why it’s not appropriate to use, in case you need a refresher. I know that this column is old, but I thought that I should profile it, since it’s pretty much a shining example of what we’re talking about when we talk about bad advice.
Here’s my thing with Dan Savage. He infuriates me. A lot. His persistent fat hatred is extremely upsetting. His assaults on so-called “PC culture” are irritating. But, every now and then, he actually gives good advice. Really good advice with which I agree, which is why I read Savage Love pretty regularly even though it makes me want to scream sometimes. In fact, I almost profiled him for a “Getting It Right” column recently, but couldn’t bring myself to do it, because of the “leotarded” column.
So, let’s review. In case you need to be reminded of why so many people strongly dislike Dan Savage…
A reader wrote:
Stop using the word “retarded” as an insult, Dan. I know it can be hard to break a verbal habit, but make an effort. Perhaps you should have a “retard jar” that you put a dollar in every time you use the word. When the jar is full, send the money to the Special Olympics.
Whatever you do, though, try to remember that you have lots of listeners and readers who have loved ones with mental disabilities, and we don’t want to hear you misuse the word “retarded.” Please don’t tell me to read or listen to other people if I don’t like what I hear. I want to read your column and listen to your podcast, but without the put-downs directed at people with mental disabilities.
The Real Other Sister
I’m going to turn over a new leaf, TROS, and make a conscious, conscientious effort to break myself of the bad habit of using the word “retard.” But I don’t think the “retard jar” is for me. Instead, I’m going to use a substitution for the word. From now on, instead of saying “retard” or “that’s so retarded,” I’m going to say “leotard” and “that’s so leotarded.” I won’t be mocking the mentally challenged, just the physically gifted. I will pick on the strong—and the limber—and not the weak.
Oh, Dan, you are so funny! My sides are aching! Oh, wait, I think that’s just indigestion.
Advice columnists, as a general rule, tend to be pretty prickly when called out by readers. A notable recent example appeared in “Ask Amy,” when Amy shamed a rape victim, was called out on it, and basically said “I don’t see what the big deal is.” Honestly, sometimes I think that advice columnists print letters critical of their responses specifically so that they can be mean to the person who sent the letter.
In this case, Dan’s mocking response made it clear that he didn’t give two figs for the fact that he was hurting people with his language use, and that his “solution” to the problem was to create a portmanteau which “won’t be mocking the mentally challenged.” I’m sure Dan is well aware of the fact that “-tarded” words work as insults because they evoke social attitudes about people with disabilities, whether or not “re-” is prefixed. His answer was basically a big, fat, “fuck you” to the disability community (with a bonus “weak” for extra points).
What’s interesting is that Dan certainly does recognize how the use of words like “gay” and an assortment of racial epithets which I can’t bring myself to type is harmful. So it’s not that Dan does not understand the power that language has, and the impact which it has on social attitudes. He just isn’t interested in the power of ableist language, which is actually a pretty widespread problem in social justice circles in general. People who would never let a word like “fag” or “bitch” cross their lips will freely say that something made them “crazy” the other day or that they saw a “lame” movie last week.
Dan had a great opportunity here to do some thinking, talk about the power of language, explain why “retarded” is wrong, apologize, and say that he won’t be using it anymore. Instead, he decided that more benefit would be provided if he insulted the reader and came up with an oh-so-hilarious variation on “retarded” to start using.
That’s a terrific message to send to all your readers, Dan! Way to go!