Nothing makes me cringe like someone describing something or someone as “retarded.” Most people know about this pet-peeve of mine. But don’t worry, this won’t be another rant on the subject.
Instead, I am going to look at several other descriptions for disability that I find offensive, unhelpful, or just a bit outdated as well as some that I find particularly good and “conductively correct.” (This is me branching out…)
To start off with some simple ones that are in the “drive me crazy” category:
- Any derivative of spastic or retard
Not only is it not acceptable to refer to individuals with disabilities by these words, it is not ok to refer to anything using these words! When someone does something stupid they are not a “spastic.” Spastic is a description of muscle tone, not an insult. Jokes about the short bus aren’t funny, they are cheap humour and they are hurtful. Retarded and stupid are not synonyms. Equating the two is incorrect and hurtful.
Next, a couple that I don’t find offensive but I also don’t find particularly helpful or empowering and some alternatives:
- Wheelchair-bound – I don’t like this because it sounds as though the use of a wheelchair is a life sentence rather than a tool. It just feels quite negative (and as a conductor, negativity is not a quality I have any time for!) It takes away the capabilities of the individual when you describe them as “wheelchair-bound.” It invokes pity rather than expectation. It sounds passive rather than active. Alternative: Wheelchair user. Most people are not “bound” to their wheelchair. Most are able to move around with varying degrees of independence. They use their wheelchair as a tool for their mobility. I am not bound to my crutches. They help me get around. They are a tool that I am in control of. I am not at their whim. People who use wheelchairs usually have an active part in using them to move around. One of my students operates her wheelchair using her chin. She is not bound to it, she actively uses it as a tool to increase her mobility. And most ingeniously!
- Disabled person – Call me overly picky but I don’t like this because it puts the disability at the forefront. Describing someone as a disabled person puts their disability front and centre as their defining trait. My brother isn’t “athetoid 10 year old.” He is Jeremiah. He has a disability. It has a huge impact on his life and personality but it does not define him. And similar to “wheelchair bound” it feel negative rather than empowering.
- Just to point out, I have no problem with the word disability in and of itself. It just means not able. In the most basic sense, if someone cannot requires assistance or an alternative approach to do something that most people can independently or in the “typical manner” they have a disability. That is in no way offensive and shouldn’t be. I just am pointing out the emphasis that this wording puts on the lack of ability. Alternative: Person with a disability – I recognize this is a bit wordy and may seem pretty much the same but to me it has a distinct difference. I am a person, you are a person, and someone who has diplegia is a person. First and foremost – we are alike because we are human. We each of different abilities and some people have less abilities in certain areas. But I feel when we say someone is a “disabled person” it is too global. They can’t walk? Can’t hear? Can’t add numbers? When you say “person with a disability” it points out that it is one aspect of who they are. Their disability could be very mild and isolated. It could be severe and impact many areas. If I told you my sister was disabled it may conjure up some stereotype of disability. My sister has dyslexia. You wouldn’t know unless you asked. Her whole “person” isn’t disabled, she has A disability. A part of her works differently. Her talents in other areas make my ability to read quickly and efficiently look like child’s play. Overall it just highlights that the disability is an aspect of who they are. An aspect that of course impacts them in many ways, we are holistic beings, but an aspect nonetheless.
And a few I just quite like at the moment:
- *Differently abled – this wording highlights the fact that everyone has different abilities and everyone has areas in which they struggle. It emphasis ability rather than disability (a goal of conductive education). It makes you look for the areas in which people have strengths instead of focusing on the weaknesses. The boy I work with in the summer has an amazing memory. I constantly ask him for dates, times, addresses, etc. I am sure someday out in the “real world” this will be an incredible asset to him. But it is important that it is highlighted rather than just his difficulties. It also reminds us that there is no one correct way to do something. Sometimes our students work hard to learn to complete something in a “typical” way, sometimes they just do whatever works. The way they do it isn’t wrong just different. Again, I am not using “differently” as a way of euphemism “disabled” I just like the emphasis it puts on ability. I feel strongly about this because of the huge problem of low expectations for people with disabilities (I talked about this in a recent post: https://jjzapf.wordpress.com/2014/01/07/the-real-issue/).
- Additional needs – rather than special needs. Just because I feel like special needs is going the way of retarded. My sister needs additional support for her reading. My brother needs additional support for his communication. They need support, not special treatment.
I know some people will disagree. Say it is just semantics or that we aren’t allowed to say anything anymore. But that is simply the result of a continually developing language and culture (did you know that idiot used to be a medical diagnosis?) We don’t describes blacks using the “N” word or gays with the “F” word let’s not describe people with disabilities with the “R” word. Speaking more carefully won’t hurt anyone; but it could save someone from being hurt. I’m not asking that everyone agree with me on the difference between “wheelchair-bound” and “wheelchair user.” I’m just hoping to highlight the need for all of us to o consider the impact of our language. There are areas in which I have not been careful with my language in the past and have been gently made aware of them. So again, I’m not pointing fingers I just want people to think about what they say.
Agree? Disagree? (To be fair I disagree with myself sometimes). Let me know!
*For a well-articulated different perspective check out this post: http://www.autistichoya.com/2013/08/differently-abled.html. In some ways, I disagree with the author, because I am not using any of this terms because I am uncomfortable with disabled. I am using them to emphasize different qualities. But she does have some really good points that have made me think. Worth a read. There is not unanimous agreement on this topic, it is constantly being developed and debated.