Talking about Disabilities
The topic for my ethics class last night was living with disabilities. I have a chapter on the subject in my book and I just finished reading Jonathan Glover's very excellent Choosing Children, which deals with choosing or not choosing disabled children. There are lots of serious, difficult questions here. And then there's the question of how we talk about disabilities.
A friend of mine told me I had erred just a bit in my chapter by speaking of a woman who is "confined" to a wheelchair. The woman in question is Harriet McBryde Johnson, who wrote this splendid article in the New York Times magazine a few years ago. I stand corrected--the wheelchair, for her, is liberating.
Glover is very careful with his language. He quotes Dr. Tom Shakespeare, a sociologist "with achondroplasia", as saying "I'm happy the way I am. I would never have wanted to be different." That's the right way to say it: "with achondroplasia." We no longer call someone a "dwarf"--the word just has too much negative cultural baggage.
So there I go into my class ready to speak about everything in the correct way, and a student makes a great point about people "with achondroplasia," only she calls them "dwarves." I brought up the point that "dwarf" is the wrong word, and everyone simply laughed.
After a two-second reassessment, I decided it was a good idea to go with the flow. I mean, it really is clumsy having to work "with achondroplasia" into sentences. I mentioned "little people" as an alternative--and just got laughed at some more. That does seem like a bit of an "insider word," and frankly what "little people" means to me is kids.
It probably doesn't pay to get too hung about language. Harriet Johnson describes the uncomfortable reactions she gets from strangers. Whether it's just crude prejudice or some sort of biologically deep-seated anxiety, it's terribly sad that there's such a deep mote dividing people with and without disabilities. Each person either is or could be on the disabled side some day. If "normal" people (is that word allowed?) have to worry even about what words they use to describe disabilities, it can only make the nervousness and division worse.
But of course we need to have some sensitivity. Perfectly reasonable writers used to talk about "imbeciles," ""mongoloids," "mental defectives," and "cripples." Some words just have to be banished.
I think we do have a complicated set of unconscious thoughts about disability that we can get to know better by inspecting the way we speak. We say "the blind" and "the deaf" but not "the blue eyed." Surely that reflects the not very wise thought that blindness and deafness go to the very essence of people and separate them out virtually as a subspecies. It's not so important to stop using those phrases as to be aware of the underlying thinking, and correct it.
"The disabled" is another one of those bad phrases, suggesting a separate subspecies and a defining characteristic. I slipped up and used it once last night, but I think nobody noticed!