How language can disable

00:23, Aug 15 2012

Language is a social and political minefield, one that's getting ever harder to navigate.

There was a time when the worst that could happen if you used the wrong word was that you would be exposed as uncultured or uneducated. Things began to change, however, in the 1960s, when language became politically more sensitive.

Black Americans had long been known as negroes, from the Spanish word for black. But at about the time of the civil rights movement, negro became unacceptable because of its long association with slavery and servitude.

Black became the preferred term, but it too fell out of favour among the politically correct, to be replaced by the cumbersome African American.

With the advent of sexual politics, gender became a touchy language issue, too. Feminists ruled that lady was belittling and girl, when used as a synonym for a grown woman, was quite beyond the pale - although the latter term is still permissible when used by women enjoying a "girls' night out" or talking about the "girls" in the netball team.

But if the language of race and sex is fraught with difficulty, the language surrounding disability is even more problematical. This was brought home to me recently when the Radio New Zealand programme One in Five examined the issue.


What emerged was that while many people with disabilities have strong opinions on the language used to describe them, their views are not consistent. Neither do they always seem entirely logical.

As with the language of race and sex, the language of disability has been politicised. It's generally accepted that words such as cripple, spastic and mongol are now out of favour. What used to be the Crippled Children's Society got around this problem by renaming itself CCS Disability Action.

There may be nothing inherently offensive in these words but they are considered pejorative, so we avoid them. (Interestingly, my Chambers Dictionary describes both cripple and mongol as offensive but not spastic, although the latter is more commonly used as a term of derision.)

Slightly more perplexing is the recent taboo on the word handicapped. It is not, as far as I can see, a derogatory or judgmental term. For decades it was part of the name of the organisation that represents people with intellectual disabilities - it's what the H in IHC (intellectually handicapped children) stands for.

My dictionary defines a handicap as a physical or mental disability that results in partial or total disability to perform social, occupational or other normal everyday activities.

This is a factual, neutral statement. To me the word handicapped carries no connotations that are not also conveyed by disabled. Yet disabled is acceptable to most people with disabilities (impairment seems OK, too), but handicapped is not. I have to ask, what's the difference?

Even disabled is too discriminatory for some, although the organisation that speaks for people with disabilities calls itself the Disabled Persons Assembly. Many disabled people also bridle at the use of terms such as special needs and wheelchair-bound.

Sometimes the objections seem to come down to hair-splitting semantics. One disabled woman interviewed for One in Five admitted that she depended on her wheelchair, yet didn't like the phrase wheelchair-bound. But it's only a figure of speech - a slightly easier way of saying wheelchair-dependent, which in her case was literally true.

Someone else said on the programme that we should look at the person first and the impairment after that, a position I can sympathise with. In other words you should say "a person who is blind" rather than "a blind person"; but in practical, everyday terms, it's unrealistic to expect everyone to observe such fine distinctions.

And just to confuse the issue, it's apparently OK to talk about "deaf people" because, as someone said on the programme, "they [deaf people] have their own culture". But how can the non-disabled be expected to understand these finer points of difference?

The radio interviewer wanted to know whether people should refer to "disabled people" or "people with disabilities", to which the answer was "The jury is still out on that one". All which makes it extremely difficult for non-disabled people to know what terms are considered acceptable.

People with disabilities seek respect and are entitled to it. They also want inclusiveness with the wider community and are entitled to that, too, as far as it's practicable. But by creating uncertainty and trepidation over what language to use when dealing with them, they may be unwittingly erecting a barrier between themselves and the community they wish to interact with.

Listening to One in Five, it seemed to me there's a real danger that the non-disabled will be deterred from engaging with disabled people for fear of causing offence with an unintentional faux pas. At that point the insistence on correct language risks becoming self-defeating.

That's how much of a minefield the language of disability has become.

Manawatu Standard