The Transcontinental Disability Choir: What is Ableist Language and Why Should You Care?
Ableism is a central concept in disability rights. The term was originally popularized by Thomas Hehir, a special education scholar who defined it as "'the devaluation of disability' that 'results in societal attitudes that uncritically assert that it is better for a child to walk than roll, speak than sign, read print than read Braille, spell independently than use a spell-check, and hang out with nondisabled kids as opposed to other disabled kids.'" There are many varied manifestations of ingrained ableism in contemporary society and pop culture, but I see it most often in uncritical use of language based on ableist assumptions - even by speakers or authors who are progressive and who are against ableism as a concept.
There are similar problems in language based on sexist or stereotypical assumptions about gender. "Throw like a girl," "cried like a little bitch," describing men as aggressive and women as bitchy, or even the default use of "he" and "him" as a gender-nonspecific pronoun are all examples of language that rely on a shared underlying assumption about gender roles to be effective. Take the description of a professional woman as "cold" or "bitchy" - this invokes the implicit assumption that women should be warm, caring, likely have a family and prioritize that family, always kind and supportive. When women who differ from that assumption by pursuing a career or being aggressive or strong in the workplace are both labelled "cold" and "bitchy", this both labels them as different than women are supposed to be and penalizes them for that difference by characterizing it as negative. This isn't news to any of you - Bitch has consistently raised and discussed these issues (see, for example, Toni Bentley referring to Katha Pollit as "an enraged, educated woman (Vagina dentata intellectualis)" in the New York Times Book Review).
Similarly, there is a plethora of words which rely on a shared assumption that to be disabled is inherently bad, inherently less than a person without a disability, inherently unworthy of attention, consideration, or care. For example, I see the word "lame" tossed around regularly, not just in pop culture commentary ("Dude, Holden [Caufield] is so lame!") but used by people criticizing pop culture from a feminist perspective, such as a blog awarding the "You're So Lame Award of Shame" to BET for featuring Chris Brown in their tribute to Michael Jackson. When the term is used that way, it is not meant to imply that Holden Caufield actually had a physical disability that caused his gait to be uneven, or that BET has a body that could be disabled in that way. Instead, it is used to mean that the character or the network are uncool, disfavored, and worthy of scorn and shame. Using the word this way would not be effective or meaningful unless both the speaker/writer and hearer/reader understood the word to mean that the person or thing it describes falls short of some agreed upon standard for people or things. This means that continued use of the word "lame" to mean lesser or scornful reinforces and strengthens the underlying assumption that people who are lame due to a disability are also lesser and worthy of scorn, which in turn reinforces the underlying assumption that people
with disabilities are inherently lesser.
For this reason, continued use of these terms (associated terms include "retarded" "gimpy" "crazy" and more, for detailed discussions of individual words, please see the ongoing Ableist Word Profile series at FWD/Forward) reinforces existing cultural and societal stereotypes about people with disabilities and their presumed lack of worth. We will be moderating the comments on our guest posts here to ensure ableist language is not used, but more than that, we ask you to seriously consider the impact that this language can have and lessen or eliminate your use of it. (If you already do so - thanks!)Because I've had this discussion in varied forums with varied degrees of acceptance, let me go ahead and anticipate some of the potential reactions to this suggestion:
Why Are You Being So Nitpicky About a Minor Issue When There Are More Important Things on Which to Focus?
There's already a fantastic discussion of this at the Feminism 101 blog that I won't duplicate here, except to take issue with the underlying assumption of this argument that these language issues are not related to or intrinsically intertwined with the "larger" issues of ableism in contemporary society. These words are effective in conveying the intended meaning of the speaker only because of the existing stereotypes and prejudices regarding people with disabilities, so reducing their use will automatically weaken the strength of those stereotypes and prejudices by making people critically think about the concepts they are invoking with those terms. If they unthinkingly imply that people with mental illnesses have no place in rational discussion ("you can't listen to Michelle Malkin - she's totally crazy"), it's very likely those assumptions manifest in ways other than their word selection.
But I (or Someone I Know With a Disability) Don't Find it Offensive!
That's great! I do. And I know a lot of other people who do. And there's a lot of forums for feminist thought and discussion that don't monitor or moderate use of these terms either in posts or in comments, and I and those people often feel unsafe in and excluded from those forums and discussions. That is a fact. If you choose to go by what you personally feel is offensive or not offensive, you will consciously be choosing to exclude and dismiss that group of people. If that's a choice you're going to make, I think it should be a conscious one, taking into account these associated consequences and outcomes.
But That's Not How People Use the Word Now!
A lot of people argue that while these words may have been associated with disabilities in the past, modern usage has diverged so dramatically from those past uses that the words no longer have any relation to disability. This is usually just not true. For instance, the Mirriam-Webster definition of "lame" lists the primary definition as "having a body part and especially a limb so disabled as to impair freedom of movement." The official psychiatric diagnosis is still "mental retardation." But regardless of whether the term is currently used in a disability context, the current meanings of the word to mean flawed, weaker, irrational, or otherwise lesser than an expected standard. That connotation provides meaning to the word - and is the core of the ableism that makes the word problematic.
But There's no Words Left to Use
Really? The English language has over 600,000 words. This is an opportunity for you to get more creative in your insults - or maybe just more precise. Let's take one of the examples used in this piece - BET for featuring convicted batterer Chris Brown in a tribute to Michael Jackson right after his death. Instead of saying it was "lame," the author could have said it was inappropriate, misguided, disrespectful to Jackson's memory, dangerous in providing legitimacy to a batterer, misrepresentation of Jackson's values, etc, etc. All of those are more precise and descriptive than "lame."
Again, thank you for being mindful of these issues in the comments - and beyond!
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