Advocates for people with disabilities believe that central to the fight to end so-called ableism is the censorship of words that could cause offense and perpetuate harmful stereotypes. I’m already risking controversy with the phrase “people with disabilities.” Advocates might prefer, instead, “people with physical or mental challenges” or “people who are differently abled.”
I hesitate to take issue with those who have accomplished so much for the disabled community, but I believe it’s a mistake to try to police vocabulary. In my view, to censor all the words that have objectionable origins and associations risks holding us back instead of advancing acceptance.
“Ableism” has been defined as “discrimination in favor of able-bodied people.” I’ve tried for a long time to tackle this subject. My attempt below is partly satirical in tone, but it isn’t meant to be disrespectful. I’m urging common sense in an understandably fraught area.
So here goes:
A BuzzFeed article published on November 16, 2021 confirms what professionals in several fields have told me: that their written work is being reviewed for words that contain prejudice against disabled people. To my enfeebled mind, this is a lame approach to ending bias.
Ableism alert: “enfeebled” and “lame”
Communication across society is a long negotiation involving hundreds of millions of people over many years. Through this sometimes invisible, sometimes contentious, process of evolution, words often change definitions and even lose altogether their original meaning.
A frequent word development is evolution of a word’s original meaning into a metaphor of itself. Who today, when calling an abuse “flagrant,” thinks of its root “to burn”?
Even in our everyday lives, something tangible can acquire metaphorical meaning. When a storm stirs up the sea, I will think, that water is wild. If I’m distressed, raging waters might become an image for the powerful emotions swirling in my head, perhaps leading me to call my state of mind “wild and crazy.”
I don’t often say “crazy” myself, but I’ve been amused when friends do so good-naturedly about themselves or situations they’ve been in. I just Googled “crazy” in case it’s on the ableism list, and yep, there it is. I’m not supposed to say it anymore. What about “nuts”? Should I be afraid to enter a supermarket for fear of insulting someone by asking where the nuts are, never mind the vegetables? Maybe best to stay at home and starve rather than bring the ableism police crashing down on my head.
Of course, that line of thought is, well, crazy. Demented. When saying the word “crazy,” am I thinking of someone so troubled by an emotional condition that they need to be hospitalized or prescribed a course of serious pharmaceuticals? No. I feel for such people and am grateful that, so far at least, I’m not afflicted with it.
But here, I’m lapsing into ableist thought. Am I wrong to use “afflicted” in connection with an emotional disorder? More personally, am I happy when someone uses “blindness” and “affliction” in the same sentence? No, I’m not. I hate the idea that others might think of me as afflicted.
I’m comfortable with the word “disability.” The prefix “dis” is sometimes said to be from the Latin meaning “not,” but I believe it’s more accurately defined as “apart” or “away from.” To me, then, “disability” is separation from an ability shared by most other people. As a blind person, I’m separated from sight. It says nothing about my other senses or faculties or much of anything else about me.
That said, I’m aware that the word carries incredibly negative associations. There’s blind (out of control) fury, blind to (incapable of appreciating) someone’s inner beauty, blind (incapable of objectivity) love, blindly (ignorantly) following a charismatic figure. There’s looking blindly (in vain) for the answer. But when people meet me, I doubt the first thing that comes to their mind is “blind drunk,” unless I’ve had a few gin-and-tonics. Usually I’m stone-cold sober.
Now “stone” isn’t an intentional allusion to cannabis, although having written it, I’m thinking “stoned.” It came to mind because I’m focused on this question of prejudicial word associations.
Ableism alert: “Focused” is surely ableist because it distinguishes people who can see well from those who can’t.
There are unquestionably words that have been used historically to hurt and harm, beginning with the so-called “n word.” But most of what ableism’s advocates seek to suppress weren’t intentionally hurtful, though they sprang from admittedly damaging assumptions.
Hold on. Let me think about that again. At the time they weren’t always assumptions. Blindness really was crippling for most of human history. Without canes, braille, guide dogs and (above all) digital technology, blind people truly were limited in their options. Only the wealthy could afford to hire amanuenses to read to and take dictation from them, and even then, as any blind person today knows, listening to material read at speaking rates, never mind dictating, isn’t efficient. So not all the negative associations were grounded purely in prejudice.
Ableism alert: crippling
Rather than pretend people with disabilities aren’t limited in certain ways, why not acknowledge that all humans have limitations? Some so-called able-bodied people can run fast, others not. Some can fix plumbing, others can’t. And all of us have at least one limitation in common: Our personal odometers one day wind down to zero and we die.
The ultimate impact of an anti-ableist censorship police would be to club ordinary people into getting so anxious about saying hurtful words that all we have left is bureaucratic language and silence.
Ableism alert: I may have just trivialized anxiety disorder. I definitely insulted office workers. I myself was once what opponents of government call a bureaucrat. I hate the word but I’m proud of the work we did.
I am not immune to the sensitivity of certain words. Recently, a boyhood memory popped into my head of my mother’s distress when someone on the television mocked someone else as “spastic.” I haven’t been able to use that word since. Another phrase I avoid, although I’ve caught myself saying it, is “basket case.” Why? Because it referred to war veterans who had lost both arms and both legs. People rarely have that history in mind when they make light of themselves or a friend for feeling totally incapable. But that tragedy is in my head hence the phrase is, for me, too distressing.
Which brings me to the fear that disabilities inspire, beginning with blindness. How do we detach the tragic connotations from such words so that the condition can be contemplated in equanimity? After all, it is fear that leads to the prejudice disabled people encounter. There can be no question that the metaphorical meanings piled on to words like “blind,” “deaf,” “paralyzed,” “lunatic,” and so on, have contributed to harmful attitudes. But these metaphorical meanings fill gaps in our vocabulary and often aren’t anchored in the disabilities that brought them into being. I’m struck by online claims that neutral synonyms can always be found, only to offer none or to list words that are completely inadequate.
There’s no simple remedy for stigma. Telling people they can’t use certain words in ordinary conversation won’t do it. It will just make them more wary of expressing themselves.
Experience is the best guide for which words to avoid or use with care. What’s missing in this journey is inclusion of more and more disabled people on job sites, in ordinary housing, restaurants, theaters, parks, on sidewalks. Indeed, the problem is similar to the one I believe underlies racism in America: segregation, meaning patterns that separate us, beginning with our neighborhoods. Instead of confining ourselves to employment in the disabilities field, such as teaching daily living skills, more disabled people might aggressively seek mainstream jobs, just as mainstream employers should be much more receptive to hiring us.
Am I being starry-eyed? As an aside, can a blind person be starry-eyed? (The metaphors just keep on coming!)
Am I saying there’s no such thing as job discrimination against disabled people? Hardly. Do disabled people often require accommodations? Yes. Are accommodations a burden on employers and service providers? Yes. Can the extra costs be justified? Yes, and not just on moral grounds. Disabled workers typically cease to be a burden on taxpayers. I hesitate to add this, but they can also motivate colleagues: A disabled worker is saying, in effect, I don’t make excuses. If I need assistance, I’ll ask, but only if I need it. Beyond that, a disabled candidate might well be the best one.
Here’s the kicker: “Ableism” and “able-bodied” are themselves inherently prejudicial terms. What does the word “ableism” assume? That mainstream society is biased. Yet disability evokes an incredibly wide range of reactions from non-disabled people, many of whom couldn’t be more welcoming of disabled people into their lives as colleagues, employees, friends and even romantic interests. Meanwhile, “able-bodied” is the ableist censorship police’s counter to “non-disabled,” suggesting that to call someone non-disabled is one big assumption. True, one could claim that everyone has some form of disability or other. But by the same token, one could argue that no one is truly “able-bodied” in the sense of disability-free. Both terms, “non-disabled” and “able-bodied,” are inaccurate, but the latter is contrived, imposed from on high rather than entering the language through custom.
I avoid using “blind” in its more disturbing metaphorical senses, as I do “spastic” and “basket case.” We all have our private list of words that bother us. But I don’t criticize others for using such words, whether in ordinary conversation, in poetry or otherwise, with the metaphorical meanings they have acquired over the centuries. It is as non-disabled people encounter more and more people with disabilities that they’re likely to reconsider those associations without the verbal batons of the ableism police.
Absolutely, let’s be conscious of the contexts of the words we use when we say them. Let’s do our best not to cause hurt or harm with our words, whether about disability or any other subject that touches us. Let’s be respectful and sensitive. But let’s not insist on the euphemisms and workarounds. Don’t make us afraid to speak. Don’t turn us all into bureaucrats numbingly towing the official line.