On Making Argument: Disability and Language, by Wheelchair Dancer

Wheelchair Dancer wrote an excellent critique of the ableism in my last post on shades of grey in activism.

The whole thing is below, but you should also check it and her other works out on her blog, Wheelchair Dancer.

On Making Argument: Disability and Language.

We all use disablist or ableist metaphorical language, and I bet most of us say something that is potentially offensive every day: we might be blind to this, deaf to that, pass disabled vehicles, chat about being paralyzed in a situation, etc., etc. I’m often uncomfortable with it — I never use the moron or cretin words — but, honesty here, I do say idiot. I never say, “that’s lame;” I almost never say blind, deaf, paralyzed, cripple, but I occasionally I find myself saying, “that’s dumb,” with full negative rhetorical force. Most of the time, if I slip up the non-disableds I’m with don’t notice; however, the disableds get it, call me on it, and we talk.

If you are feeling a little bit of resistance, here, I’d ask you to think about it. If perhaps what I am saying feels like a burden — too much to take on? a restriction on your carefree speech? — perhaps that feeling can also serve as an indicator of how pervasive and thus important the issue is. As a community, we’ve accepted that commonly used words can be slurs, and as a rule, we avoid them, hopefully in the name of principle, but sometimes only in the name of civility. Do you go around using derivatives of the b*ch word? If you do, I bet you check which community you are in…. Same thing for the N word. These days, depending on your age, you might say something is retarded or spastic, but you probably never say that it’s gay.

I’d like to suggest that society as a whole has not paid the same kind of attention to disabled people’s concerns about language. By not paying attention to the literal value, the very real substantive, physical, psychological, sensory, and emotional experiences that come with these linguistic moves, we have created a negative rhetorical climate. In this world, it is too easy for feminists and people of colour to base their claims on argumentative strategies that depend, as their signature moves, on marginalizing the experience of disabled people and on disparaging their appearance and bodies.

Much of the blogosphere discourse of the previous weeks has studied the relationships between race, (white) feminism and feminists, and WOC bloggers. To me, the intellectual takeaway has been an emerging understanding of how, in conversation, notions of appropriation, citation, ironization, and metaphorization can be deployed as strategies of legitimation and exclusion. And, as a result, I question how “oppressed, minoritized” groups differentiate themselves from other groups in order to seek justice and claim authority. Must we always define ourselves in opposition and distance to a minoritized and oppressed group that can be perceived as even more unsavory than the one from which one currently speaks?

As I watched the discussion about who among the feminist and WOC bloggers has power and authority and how that is achieved, I began to recognise a new power dynamic both on the internet and in the world at large. Feminism takes on misogyny. The WOC have been engaging feminism. But from my point of view, a wide variety of powerful feminist and anti-racist discourse is predicated on negative disability stereotyping. There’s a kind of hierarchy here: the lack of awareness about disability, disability culture and identity, and our civil rights movement has resulted in a kind of domino effect where disability images are the metaphor of last resort: the bottom, the worst. Disability language has about it a kind of untouchable quality — as if the horror and weakness of a disabled body were the one true, reliable thing, a touchstone to which we can turn when we know we can’t use misogynistic or racist language. When we engage in these kinds of argumentative strategies, we exclude a whole population of people whose histories are intricately bound up with ours. When we deploy these kinds of strategies to underscore the value of our own existence in the world, we reaffirm and strengthen the systems of oppression that motivated us to speak out in the first place.

Some background and ground rules. Though I am using Mandolin’s post in detail, I will be referring to her throughout as “the writer.” This is because I am not interested in making an anti-Mandolin conversation. I wish to begin a conversation about disability, language, authority, and power. Mandolin’s post just got me started.

Organizational strategy. That was the theory and conclusions. In the rest of the post are some explanations of how I got there. I’d like to go about this two ways: first talk about details of the post and then talk about implications.

Part 1: Details

But more on the systemic level. We cut off our own feet. If we can’t acknowledge we’re all trapped in racist and sexist systems, systems which compromise our most purely intended actions, systems that prescribe our choices and make us choose between lesser evils… what can we fight?

We commonly talk about us “handicapping” ourselves in a given situation. Here, the writer takes a more literal approach: we become double BKAs (below the knee amputees). This, in itself, might be a small oversight, except that the image of the amputation as a self-inflicted injury is troubling. It is even disturbing because it reaffirms the idea that disabled people are trapped, paralyzed (by their own doing or perhaps not) and helpless — in this case before the forces of evil oppressive systems.

Yes, I know, images and language like this are so routine that they are almost invisible. But that doesn’t make it acceptable. Language and its ideas still have effects. In this case, they are part of a system of images that the writer has begun to use whenever she needs to talk about a powerless situation in the identity and cultural politics wars. The image is not hers to begin with, but she takes it on and takes it over in a title and in the post that follows that title. And then, the same image shows up in, here, in the Grey Activism thread. It’s almost as if amputation of the legs is this writer’s way of indicating the victimization of a well-intentioned person who then becomes helpless either in the face of critical discourse or in the face of discourse systems that have power to wreak havoc on an innocent speaker.

The second detail is an example of how, once it becomes acceptable to take small images in brief words and phrase, it becomes possible to make huge paragraphs:

There’s a personality disorder called Borderline Personality Disorder in which sufferers have a great deal of difficulty understanding ambiguity. They tend to view themselves and others as either entirely good or entirely bad, a switch that will flip with great regularity. On a good day, they are all good. On a bad one, they are the worst person who ever lived. If you give them something they like, you’re an angel; if you speak a harsh word, you’re an evil person conspiring against them.

I tend to drive some of our legalistic commenters here crazy…

This is an awfully generalized description of Borderline Personality Disorder. Short on factual information, it relies on the safety of the You and Them dichotomy: You and those awful Them. And it highlights Their irrationality, Their craziness, Their suffering. The suffering thing is a key point. To use such language is to imply that people are prone to their diagnosis, stripped, in some ways of their personhood — to the point that they can become THEM, a safely otherable pile of flesh. The disability civil rights movement has worked years to educate people on language like this. We don’t “suffer” with our disabilities; we are not our medical diagnoses. To reduce us to our diagnoses is to suggest that there is a fundamental binary of human existence: able-bodied and not. And those who are not, suffer. And it offers an understanding of disability that is wholly medical and awful. There is no natural physical variation, no understanding of how environment and culture contribute to the understanding of disability; there is only the awfulness of BPD. BTW: there’s a tremendous amount of dispute in disability communities about how diagnoses like this are formed. It’s not like irrationality is objective. It’s not like, medically speaking, you do these things and BOOM! BPD.

Essentially, this is a coercive argument by analogy that is successful because of the awful image of BPD it uses. It kind of runs like this. BPD is bad. People who have it aren’t like you and me — they’re irrational. Crazy. And when we do these kinds of things — “trying to define THAT person as evil for THIS compromised act and making that declaration of good or evil a single, solid, reified thing” — we are exhibiting the behaviours of someone with BPD. So, don’t do them. You wouldn’t want to be seen as having BPD, now, would you?

And what to make of the writer’s very next sentence where she declares that she drives people crazy? If you don’t acknowledge the power of the words you wield, the border line between the real and the figurative is very porous.

OK. Enough. I’ve spent so much time on the literal value of the metaphorical details and figurative language because I think not recognizing the literalness of all of this is critical to the next move.

Part 2: Implications

The most important things to me here are one: the fact that one of the people posited throughout the post — the poor liberal who in trying to do good and be complex makes a couple of mistakes — ends up helpless before the dysfunctionality of the politics of the system. And two: the fact that, by the end of the post that person is represented as a double BKA with BPD: a double below the knee amputee with borderline personality disorder. A wacky, helpless, and perhaps dangerously irrational, disabled person. The details may seem small when looked at individually, but that final image is extraordinarily undermining of the disability civil rights movement and of modern progressive understandings of disabled people’s place in society.

Relying on the figurative value of disability metaphors tends to render disabled people invisible; it cuts us out of the conversation. And we are a part of those communities — a necessary part. Disability IS a feminist issue and vice versa (think choice, think end of life, think pre-natal testing, think any part of body autonomy). The constructions and experiences of disability in a divergence of racial and ethnic communities are important to us — for the disability civil rights movement is mainly white. We who are feminist, of colour, and of disability are critical to the conversation, but, to quote Vicki Lewis, we disabled folk are not your metaphor.

And we do experience the exclusion from the conversation in many of the same ways discussed over and over again in the past weeks. Personally, I get tired of trying to bring the disability angle to the table — others I know do, too. As a movement, in our daily lives, and even as a scholarly field in the hallowed halls of academia, disability and disabled people have yet to be recognized as full participants in the conversations about intersecting identities, power, the body, etc. etc.

In the disability movement, we often talk about interdependence and the way all humans are dependent, in some ways, on each other. We use these terms as a way of countering the very material point that disabled people are dependent, non contributing burdens on society, and we use it to challenge the narratives of able-bodied American self-sufficiency. I can’t speak for a very diverse movement, but, to me, one of the signature disability moves is to look for a collaboration that acknowledges the interdependence of all peoples while respecting and valuing their differences. There is no logical need for one of us to leverage off the other: collaboration not competition floats more boats on a rising tide.

So, the next time you need to make an argument about the value of your particular minoritized group, its place in society and culture, its history, etc., I’d ask you to look down and check whose broken back (metaphorically speaking, of course) you are standing on.

Some of my response to the email where she was kind enough to send me this is below the fold.

Mandolin, in email:

This is extremely well-written and well-reasoned. I particularly agree with the places where you point out my use of metaphorical laziness to construct disability as helplessness. You’re totally right; I wouldn’t use words like this about other oppressed groups. I do lack the awareness of linguistic constructions that harken back to disability. I have purged the word retarded from my vocabulary; I am sometimes aware of the word crazy, but not often enough; for some silly reason I hadn’t even begun to think of the word dumb’s origins. Argh. Jerky, oppressive linguistic origins, sneaking in everywhere…

I also think you’re right that the disability movement has been overlooked in this regard more generally than by me alone, and that’s something progressives need to address.

I don’t know if you’re aware that I am on psychoactive medications, and do have a diagnosed medical disorder (mood, not personality). I am therefore crazy, irrational, part of them, and so on. That doesn’t mean I can’t have internalized bias, certainly, and I don’t mean to excuse myself on the basis of belonging to a group… but I do think that I consider craziness a little bit differently than people who don’t identify within the group, although also fairly differently from the anti-psychiatry movement. I can go into that a bit more if you want, but I don’t want to sidetrack too far…

[detour while Mandolin sidetracks anyway]… That doesn’t mean it’s okay for me to use it in the way I used it, particularly devoid of all the context above. Without elaborate justifications — and even with them, probably — the language I used falls into an ableist paradigm. After all, isn’t that the same thing I’d say to a man who called Hilary’s voice screechy or a white person who called Obama articulate? I may have interactions with and thoughts about psychology that are not societally defaulted, but I am nevertheless responsible for how my words exist within societal defaults, and that part of my post was utter fail. (And I don’t mean to suggest there’s no ableism involved in my view of psychiatry and brains and so on, just that it’s not necessarily… um, the normally assumed ableism?)

Really, I was trying to say that some people have huge problems with ambiguity, which sometimes manifests in traits like those described. There was no reason for me to pin a diagnosis on it instead of just talking about the behavior I wanted to describe.

Again, I really appreciate you writing this… I apologize for my inconsiderate and ableist language and framing, and feel free to let me know if I’m still standing at the dock, watching the boat whizz by as I miss it.

Wheelchair Dancer has been enmodded for the purposes of this discussion, so please respect her comments in this thread as those of a moderator.

This entry posted in Civility & norms of discourse, Disabled Rights & Issues. Bookmark the permalink. 

68 Responses to On Making Argument: Disability and Language, by Wheelchair Dancer

  1. Thanks, Mandolin, for responding and for helping to make this possible.


  2. 2
    Ampersand says:

    This is a really great post, and I agree with virtually all of it.

    (I’m worried that it might not get many comments — over time, I’ve noticed that often the most closely-written and carefully rendered posts get the fewest comments.)

    (As usual when I’m reading about disability, I notice a lot of parallels between disability issues and fat issues; not that they’re identical, but that there’s overlap. (Think of the casual language using weight as a metaphor: a business that can’t support all its staff is said to be “bloated” or “flabby.” People talk about the need to “trim off the fat” from their wallets. Etc, etc.)

    I sometimes think that language issues are effects more than causes. Which doesn’t mean I think it’s not an important issue.

    I think it’s important to talk and think about language, not primarily because the language itself does harm, but because language is a reflection of the state of a marginalized group in society. The reason we casually use anti-ablist metaphors is because disabled people are still the other, and thus merit very little consideration, and certainly not the enormous effort of finding a different metaphor to use.

    When we demand different language be used, that’s helpful because it’s a way of claiming inclusion within society; these are not people that can be excluded by language, because they are us. It’s a way of telling people to include disabled people in their internal image of what normal human beings look like.

    (Or that’s my blathering thought at the moment, anyway.)

  3. 3
    glt says:

    Lately I’ve been trying to expunge the word “lame” (in a derisive sense) from my vocabulary. But I still have trouble coming up with alternatives, and it looks like there are still offensive words I’ve been using that I didn’t know about. Is there a comprehensive list of little-known but widely-used offensive words (and possibly alternatives)? One factor is, I feel comfortable saying “idiot” in front of my parents but not Shakesville-approved “douchehound.”

    When I was a kid my peers favored “retard” but thankfully it didn’t catch on with me. It’s much easier to avoid starting to use a word than to unlearn it later.

  4. 4
    Stentor says:

    I’m worried that it might not get many comments — over time, I’ve noticed that often the most closely-written and carefully rendered posts get the fewest comments.

    I’m not sure it’s something you need to be worried about. I think posts like this provoke a lot of reflection and processing that takes some time. Given the speed at which blogging moves, that means people won’t necessarily have a reply that does justice to the original post ready in time — but the post’s effects will ripple into future posts and comments.

    But if you do want to generate more comments, perhaps you could pose a specific question to the thread — in this case, I think a good one would be to share examples of alternatives to ableist language, ways to get the same rhetorical oomph without marginalizing disabled people. (Both because that’s a good thing to know in itself, and because I think a lot of people are resistant to arguments like WCD’s because they don’t know how else to make their point.) Unfortunately I’m far too new at this to start things off with an example of my own.

  5. Hi !

    Let’s see: Amp — In 1993, it became possible to sue for protection as an obese person under the ADA. And, recently, as far as SSDI-Medicare (I think) it became possible just two years ago? to look at obesity as federally recognized disability. So, in some legal senses, yes. In many other cultural senses, too. Fat Studies arrived in the somewhat more popular imagination in 2006 with this this NYT article.

    And yes, I think there are some strategic similarities. One of the first articles that discussed fat as a disability by highlighting strategies was Sander Gilman’s 2004 piece. That said, however, the politics of disability and fat complicate each other. It’s one thing to be a slim wheelchair athlete and another to be a fat powerchair user. In my experience, fat, in the latter case becomes a way of further denigrating the disabled person, as opposed to allowing physical diversity among PWDs. The fat gets rolled into the disability … it doesn’t stand alone.

    To Glt and Stentor. No, no prescribed lists. And that’s a good thing in my view. Partly because I think lists are a bad idea in general — you can’t legislate every case for everything, and partly because I think that lists are an easy way of dodging responsibility. If you know what’s on the list and just follow it, you are not looking at your own language and considering, say, is there any situation in which calling someone a retard is not hurtful? Why I am a calling them a retard instead of, say, a doofuss? Is there a larger disability context that I should be thinking about? What makes this an appropriate insult? Using a list lifts the pressure to take responsibility for screw ups — it minimizes active thought. And active thought and careful questioning are where it is at for me …

    Stentor asks about getting the same rhetorical oomph. OK. Doofuss has no teeth, I’ll admit that. But perhaps I can change the question slightly? What is gained by achieving the oomph where one group excludes and marginalizes an other? Is that oomph really necessary? Can we dream of a vocabulary of invective that does not recreate certain people’s history of oppression and abjection? And if we can’t, why can’t we?


  6. 6
    Mandolin says:

    I sure hope we can dream of such invective; the problem seems to be dreaming *up* such invective. ;-) I think it’s just a part of our brains many of us aren’t used to using.

    I totally agree that any amount of oomph is not worth participating in the linguistic recreation of oppression.

    I do think we can keep … um, rhetorical flavor? Or at least a shifted kind of rhetorical flavor, without using damaging phrases. At least, I hope we can.

    I’ve been trying to use irrational when I want to describe an opponent’s actions as crazy — because irrational is usually what I mean.

    With regard to the ‘crazy’ I used in the post, for some reason that particular usage is in a different part of my mental lexicon, so I hadn’t even started to flag it yet. Guh. Anyway, what I meant was “I know I irritate our legalistic commenters…” which doesn’t have the same sense of self-mocking I wanted so that Sailorman would know I was being affectionate. Perhaps I know I’m a gnat buzzing around the ears of some of our more legalistic commenters? That’s right, Sailorman, I’m buzzin’ at you, kid.

    Richard Jeffrey Newman, come be a poet and inspire us with your vocabularistic originality.

  7. 7
    Jonathan says:

    Just wanted to chime in and say that I found this post quite exceptional; it manages to encapsulate perfectly what I (a person with a disability), have felt for quote a while now, just much better than I over could.

    It feels as if in some way the non-disabled have a claim of ownership, due to a perception that disability is in some sense universal; not only is it (if taken as a homogenous entity, at any rate) independent of colour, sex etc), but it affects almost everyone at some point, in their later years. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to extend to create the more positive connotation, that it is not a deviant, abnormal state to be feared and ignored. Unfortunately, society’s so hung up on youth and a hyper-idealised image of health/vitality, old age and disability offer a convenient “other” by which to measure success at being normal.

    When WCD said:

    one of the signature disability moves is to look for a collaboration that acknowledges the interdependence of all peoples while respecting and valuing their differences.

    I was reminded of a recent post on feministing that really irked me, about classification of pregnant woman as temporarily disabled. A significant part of the reaction was “women don’t need to be stigmatised further by being given that negative label,” or “pregnancy is not a disability because it is natural and normal.”

    Anyway, to everyone involved, a huge thanks for posting this. I think it will be my standard response when friends (feminist friends, too) drop “retarded” in a conversation and don’t understand why I find it offensive.

  8. 8
    Penny says:

    Wow, WCD, this is terrific, thanks.

    We had list of “more precise” adjectives at DS,TU last December, meant more as some starting examples than as anything comprehensive:
    DS,TU: A New Vocabulary.

  9. 9
    Jonathan says:

    Gah, I committed grammar/punctuation errors all over the place there. That’s what I get for posting pre-morning coffee. I only just realised I can edit it pre-moderation too. Sorry!

  10. 10
    Kay Olson says:

    The metaphors do have a cumulative psychological effect, whether individuals are aware of their use or not. And they keep coming, almost always without remark — those of us that notice have to decide whether or not to remark on word choice, either derailing a conversation or silencing ourselves.

    Typically, this multi-blog discussion on race, appropriation and privilege has made ample use of disability metaphor. Off the top of my head I am certain “falling on deaf ears” has been used at least once, and metaphors of “blindness” too many times to count. I hung in there, reading along everywhere, mostly quiet and reflective and saddened, until last Friday’s Shakesville post boldly entitled “The Blindness of Privilege” drove me from even following the discussion any more. How to even participate in that as a white, disabled (though sighted) feminist blogger?

    See how that works? The discussion is on privilege, of all things.

    This is exactly the point where many people get defensive about their freedom of word choice. The N word? The C word? Decent people know better than to say publicly what they might secretly think with those (and they may feel guilty even thinking them), but they’ll be damned if they’re going to stop using “retarded”. It’s funny when Jon Stewart uses it on The Daily Show and they don’t want to give it up. And they don’t want to have to think about every turn of phrase or worry about the sensitive feelings of another oppressed group.

    Or, as above, people reasonably want to know exactly what they can or cannot say without unintentionally hurting anyone. But this is just as complicated as white privilege — you can’t just follow along, make a list, and do it right. It takes work, active commitment and humility, because we all learn as we go. Understanding privilege (or the flipside, oppression, for that matter — these WOC explaining where they’re at these past weeks weren’t born understanding it all either) is a process, not a decision we make one day.

    I always feel like a bit of a didactic snot talking about this stuff, because I think my tone comes across as that of someone who feels like she’s figured it out (knows exactly which words are acceptable, etc.). But the best I can say about myself is that I remain curious about the process of understanding privilege (all privilege, mine and other people’s) and try to keep a bit of personal energy focused toward acting on that knowledge.

    Thanks, Wheelchair Dancer, for your fabulous articulateness. I’m cross-posting my comment here to your blog, as well.

  11. 11
    Kit Kendrick says:

    I find myself having mixed feelings here. I’m generally sympathetic to taking additional care with phrasing, and yet I choked on the second sentence in the quoted article. “A disabled vehicle” is ableist language? Really? It seems to me that a vehicle that cannot be driven is disabled, not metaphorically, but according to the actual meaning of the word. Does the fact that a word can be used in a problematic way mean it’s every use is problematic?

  12. 12
    Leora says:

    I took the “disabled vehicle” to mean that a person passed a working vehicle used by a disabled person, as in one parked in an accessible spot. But maybe I’m wrong. It is like when you ride the bus, and a passenger in a wheelchair is about to get on, and so when the driver is getting the lift or people are moving out of the accessible seating, people say “Wheelchair is coming!” It’s like if you wore glasses and everybody shouted “Glasses is coming!”

    But if I’m wrong, and she meant it to mean like passing a disabled car, as in a broken down car on the highway, I think the implication is that the car doesn’t work and sits idle on the road, useless until it is fixed. Which is not what disabled people see themselves as. Although this may be more of a problem with labeling people “disabled” than cars. I was never happy with the label “disabled.” But it is better than handicap or cripple. And it is a little bit like the negro/colored/black/African-American label issue. You can change the label, but if the connotation of the label is still thought of as negative, then any change in wording you make will eventually become negative as well. I mean, look at the “special” and “exceptional” labels. The words themselves could be defined as positive, but since the thing they define (disability) is still thought of as being negative, the words became pukingly patronizing.

    Also, even if the words are technically used correctly, they can seem condescending when used by able bodied people who don’t have a clue. For example, I’m blind. Someone can say to me, “Oh! I’m just completely blind without my glasses!” And perhaps technically this is so. The person may meet the definition of legal blindness without their glasses. But the word “blind” to me is not only about visual acuity, it is about culture. There is pride in blindness. There is community, there is a common social striving, common experiences in the culture, in-jokes, a sense of accomplishment, a common struggle. I’m not going to be angry at a person who says, “I’m blind without my glasses,” because they are not intentionally trying to degrade the label, but also, they have not earned the right to use that word and they will never understand why, unless they really understand disability culture.

    That is a rather subtle example, but it isn’t as if there can be a list of words, eggshells you walk around and magically avoid being offensive without putting forth any of the work to understand why such usage is offensive. Majority culture always just wants a handy list or a rule book on how to instantly do these things and you will no longer be prejudice. And that’s not how it works, for disability stuff or any other minority group. You have to put in the work to figure out the whys of the reasons some language is considered offensive. What attitudes do we all carry that lead us to using this language? What are we really trying to say and how can we say that without putting down a whole group of people?

  13. Gah! Just. Gah! I wrote this long response, took time to sip my coffee, and it disappeared when I pressed the submit button. So, starting again.

    Invective — I spent a large part of last night trying to come up with invective that didn’t sound like something from a Monty Python sketch. I was unsuccessful because I didn’t think anything I was saying had bite. Bite, I eventually figured out, is all about the put down, the rhetorical sword into the societally-defined weakest bit. Can we change this?

    I have to say that my experience is very much like Kay’s. I, too, watched the debate of the past weeks and wondered how to participate. In order to contribute anything, I felt like I had to suppress a part of myself and focus on the abstract argument — exclusion, appropriation, irony, etc. Except that the biggest irony was that in order to participate, I had to experience a version of the same problem that was at the heart of the debate.

    Which brings me to Kit’s point and questions. What to do when disablist language is every where … does every instance hurt? I don’t take phrases like “disabled car” as personal insults, though I do notice them. I notice them because they are like small nails in a coffin or straws on a camel’s back. You could just say broken down car, mechanical issues, flat tire, or whatever. But people don’t. They repeatedly link equipment failure, failure of a machine, train, car, appliance, whatever to do what it was designed to do and disability. Failure, brokenness, disfunction = disability. It becomes obvious. The car is disabled, no?

    The trouble is that the reverse is less obvious (unless you are a disabled person). Disabled = brokenness, failure to do what you were designed to do, inability …. And that’s the problem. So large, so complete, so everywhere is that association that it makes life difficult for disabled people when we, say, apply for jobs, want service in a restaurant, need access for public transport, want a date, …. You may say that failure to gain each or any of these is an instance of individuals behaving badly, but only some individuals behave badly because they actively practice discrimination. Others behave badly because they don’t know. They don’t know because they exist in a climate where language and cultural ideals combine to tell them that PWD are lesser humans who can’t function.

    I believe change happens from below and that if we, as individuals, take responsibility for what we can change — our own words, perspectives, and actions, we will be creating a world in which disability is seen as a form of equal variation and PWD can participate as full citizens. For those reasons, I think it is important to look to daily word usage. Each of us has the power to alter how we speak and the responsibility to think of the impact of our language.

  14. 14
    Bjartmarr says:

    I’m having similar problems to the ones Kit is having. After thinking a while, I think I’ve boiled things down to the root of my issue.

    I think that being male is different from being female. Not better — just different. Similarly, I think that being white, thin, straight, and Christian are no better than being nonwhite, fat, gay, or non-Christian. But I’m having a really hard time seeing, say, being able to walk as being no better than not being able to walk. In my mind, an inability to walk (or hear, or talk, or see) is not just different from, but worse than being able to walk, hear, talk, and see.

    Of course, I draw a very sharp line between the trait that a person has, and the person themself. I think I can say, “it’s bad to be unable to see” without implicitly condemning blind people, or considering them lesser people than the sighted.

    We don’t use the word “gay” to mean “something I don’t like” because that creates an improper association that gayness is bad. But when we use the word “blind” to mean “unable to see”, we aren’t creating an improper association — the “bad” connotations of being unable to see are entirely proper.

    All this is not to say that we should use words that others ask us not to use. That these words hurt others is reason enough not to use them. But I’m having a hard time finding a rationale beyond that for avoiding their use.

  15. 15
    Leora says:

    Bjarrtmar (did I spell that right?)

    First of all, thanks for your honesty. What you are saying is at the center of the ablism issue.

    This is just basic Disability 101, and perhaps someone can point to a nice Disability 101 link. I’ll try to sum basic ablism up in a few, shiny sentences.

    First, disability is not an abhoration or a deficit. It is a normal part of the human condition. It is part of humanity. There is no perfect human specimen out there. Some disabilities are easier to see and define than others, but we all have disabilities. And we all will likely become disabled (in the traditional sense) at some point in our lifetime.

    Most people with disabilities will tell you that there are two parts to being disabled. One is the intrinsic part. The part where your eyes don’t work as well as other people’s (the norm), or your legs, or your brain. And sometimes these things are inconvenient. Sometimes they suck. But most of the time they can be worked around just like everybody works around their lot in life. Many people would say that this is part of, but not all nor even the majority part of the disability experience.

    The disability experience is the social construct of disability. It is the attitude that we are less than. If not as people (as you recognize) then as our quality of life and how our lives are valued in society. These so called attitudinal barriers affect everything from grocery shopping to employment to health care to going to see a movie. These are the barriers that are put in place by society’s views of us as less than human. These are the things that oppress us, not so much the actual physical attributes that make us disabled.

    So, say you have a characteristic that society sees as less than. Oh, what is a good example? Say you aren’t good at math, for whatever reason. (Many people aren’t good at math, but it isn’t considered a disability. People just work around it.) Say all the sudden, your deficiency in math (which, I guess isn’t as “good as” someone who is good at math) is visible to the naked eye and seen as a disability. Say every where you go, people treat you with pity, and they don’t let you handle money because you aren’t good at math. And you aren’t allowed to drive a car or hold down a job because you aren’t good in math, even if a simple calculator or a talking pedometer would accommodate you. And whenever anyone makes a mistake mathmatically, they are teased and said to have Mathitis, like you do. They must just be a mathtard. And the implication is that they are less than and can’t do anything for themselves. And perhaps when you went to the doctor, they didn’t treat your cancer as aggressively as they would someone without mathitis, because your quality of life isn’t as good as others and so you would just be wasting resources. And say people asked you all the time, even on the streets, if you have checked into this cure or that cure for your problem, or if you’ve ever thought of killing yourself because of your problem.

    And say, if left to your own devices, you would just always have a calculator and you would go into social work or art or something instead of becoming a mathmetician or an algebra teacher. (like people who aren’t good in math do now). And no one would really bat two eyelashes about it and not base your entire identity on it. Or make fun of people using you as the butt of the joke. And say that because of your experiences of being disabled in math, you have created a wealth of resources for yourself. You may have even invented a new type of calculator or slide rule that is being used throughout society now. Your difference has actually added to the greater good.

    But no one recognizes your experiences as a person with mathitis as a strength. that is not how your life is, as a person who is a mathtard. Instead, you are on a 5 year waiting list for section 8 housing, you are told you are unemployable, you are constantly pointed to and stared at in the street, people define you entirely by this one thing you can’t do well, instead of the myriad of other aspects of your personality. People don’t think you have tried hard enough to get cured, and they think when you try to accommodate yourself, you are trying to get special treatment. They think you are lazy to go on disability, but they don’t think that employers should have to accommodate you, either. They think that you would be better off dead than to have to go through life with this lousy math ability.

    Math skills, like vision, would be handy. Sure. Nothing wrong with math skills…or sight. But who are you to say, or anyone to say, that my life would be better with sight? Who is to say that society would be better without blind people? Sure, being blind (and I am deafblind, btw) has its moments of suckatude. But I can’t imagine life without being disabled. The experiences I wouldn’t have, the things I wouldn’t understand, the skills I wouldn’t know, the people I wouldn’t know, the very, narrow narrow view of life I would have. People ask me all the time if I could see and hear tomorrow, would I take that opportunity. And maybe, for the novelty of it. To be able to experience something new and different. But to give up being deafblind, to have never been? No way. I would not give it up in a million years. To me, it is not less than. It is just a characteristic of humanity that I possess. Some people are black or gay or whatever. I am disabled. Why is that “less than”? This is the entire problem in a nutshell. And all this language works off of that.

  16. Thank you, Leora. Mathitis? — a stroke of genius. I want to address the underlying concerns and that is understanding why we should change.

    While I agree that hurting people is bad, I don’t think setting out to avoid hurt is necessarily the best way of approaching something that can be as burdensome as changing speech practice obviously is. Trying simply not to hurt someone, I think, means having to watch every little thing. Understanding the principle is different. If you can understand why, how, then the little things come more naturally and you don’t need lists or behaviour guidelines.

    When I think about doing something for those reasons and, in the past, when I have tried to do so, I get stuck. I get frustrated. And I give up — yes, I feel guilty, yes I feel bad. But I cannot hang onto my intention of wanting not to hurt. I do better — make more changes, feel better about the changes I am able to make, stick with the program longer until it becomes a habit — when I understand the context in which I am working, why I am trying to change, what happens if I don’t, why the person was hurt.

    Either way, change is hard.


  17. 17
    glt says:

    If you know what’s on the list and just follow it, you are not looking at your own language and considering, say, is there any situation in which calling someone a retard is not hurtful?

    True, but I know I won’t have time to stop and think in the heat of the moment when I am trying to compose a sentence, so I may just fall back on something offensive that I could have replaced if I had made a conscious decision to avoid it. There’s also a risk of my not knowing the origins of a word. In the past year I’ve come across at least two racial slurs that I had never heard before and might not have realized were offensive in a different context.

  18. 18
    FurryCatHerder says:

    The more time passes the less convinced I am that changing language accomplishes anything. We’ve made The N-Word so forbidden that someone using it can lose their job and just about everything else.

    And yet, racism keeps on going.

    I think I’d rather be called a queer and allowed to marry the next Ms. CatHerder than never be called a queer and not allowed to marry.

  19. 19
    Bjartmarr says:

    I get the “social construct” part; well, I get it about as well as I can be expected to, not having experienced it.

    The idea that the actual disability itself isn’t worse than the corresponding ability…that is much more difficult to understand. Certain parts of my body don’t work as well as they used to, or don’t work as well as the norm, and I would dearly love to have those parts fixed: I consider myself very much worse off than if those parts worked. So it is hard for me to understand when other people don’t feel the same way.

    Thank you for your post, Leora. I’m going to take a while to think about it.

    Incidentally, I tried googling “disability 101″ before I wrote my last post, and got back a bunch of instructions on how to apply for benefits. So a link would be appreciated.

  20. Good points and questions. appreciated.

    FurryCatHerder: No one can give a precise answer about the degree to which language does and doesn’t shape reality and human experience, so I am going with an observation about things once they are in circulation. Why do companies change their names? Because they believe in the power of language — and they think millions of dollars can ride on it. Changing us from Negros to African Americans doesn’t change the colours of our skin, but it does interrupt, if only for a couple of seconds, the associations and status that were true, say, just years before civil rights were enacted. Teaching your kids the words that don’t have the history doubles my chances of being seen as a human being and full participant. There’s a reason why name calling can be as personally painful and societally detrimental as it is.

    Glt: Yeah. That’s the downside. Practice, being called out on stuff, listening, asking, reflecting, and learning. This stuff is painful and difficult. No one likes to discover they’ve been a dingbat. I try to keep reading work from as many diverse people as I can; I try to expose myself to the places where I am uncomfortable; and I try to apologize and understand when I fuck up.

    Bjartmarr: Disability 101 is a colloquial shorthand for saying that’s the kind of thing you would learn in a freshman academic course; you could also say feminism 101… As for the body stuff. I used to run 20 miles a week. I enjoyed the freedom, the sensation of pounding the ground, springing into the air, the sweat, the tiredness, the sun on my body, the rain, the speed, the challenge, the beauty of my body moving. Now, I can’t. But that doesn’t mean that I can have any of those things. In my chair, I experience every last one of those — with the exception of pounding the ground, I pound the wheels instead. I still have my life. I go out, have friends, have sex, see movies, dance, drive, work… you name it. Using a wheelchair has not prevented me from living. Check out these posts, by Kay and me.

  21. 21
    Leora says:

    I think one of the main things that blocks people from working on these issues is that you have to be willing to fail. And keep trying.

    Nearly every nondisabled person I have ever met has said something ignorant or offensive to me. And if it was honestly unintentional, that is okay. As long as they are willing to learn from their mistakes and keep trying. Keep coming back and trying to get to know me, and the broader scope of disability rights and attitudes better. Don’t be afraid to suck at this. You will never learn it if you don’t get out there and keep trying. People seem like they want to read a book or have a list so they can be perfect beforehand, and it ain’t going to happen that way.

    Look, I’m just a stupid white chick from Nebraska. I think we had about 10 black kids in my high school of over 2000. But I try to transfer my knowledge about disability oppression to other things, and just keep trying to learn from my mistakes and ingrained ignorance about people of color. And I’ve stuck my foot in my mouth and said some pretty stupid things. (And still have a lot to learn.) And it is hard and you do have to put yourself out there and take a risk and be open to the real likelihood that you are going to screw up and will need to fess up and fix your mistakes.

    I’d rather have someone blunder all over themselves trying to learn about disability issues, then someone who prides themselves on never saying anything offensive, yet never even talks to any disabled people. I recognize and appreciate the people that are willing to risk failure and embarrassment in order to get to know me and the issues that are important to me. Those are the people, eventually, who are really going to change.

  22. 22
    Leora says:

    Also, Bjartmarr

    I think what you might not be getting (and read WCD links because they are great in this regard) is that with anything, when one door closes, another door opens. The same goes for losing some kind of physical ability.

    My twin 3 year olds had a conversation (posted up at my blog currently) about how people who drive cars do things a different way and don’t get to ride the bus or the light rail train like we do. And I was thinking about this, amused.

    I can’t drive, and I do walk a great deal and take the bus and light rail. And occasionally get rides. I get the convenience and freedom of driving. Most people would say that because of my disability, my methods of transportation are inferior to those who are able to drive. And in some ways they are. Riding the bus takes longer, you have to wait outside, you have to think about what you can carry, you have to plan your errands really strategically.

    Yet other times, driving seems ridiculous to me. And I’m so glad I never developed the habit of depending on it. The lengths people go, we as a society have gone to have that ability. I have hundreds of dollars at my disposal a month that other people use on car payments, gas, car insurance, repairs. My transportation costs are around $25 a month. That people will not even consider taking a bus to a place just a few blocks away. Or drive around and around the parking lot looking for the best space amuses me greatly. I get off the bus and have to walk across the whole parking lot, sometimes blocks, and all it does is give me a little more exercise. People put themselves and their children in cars that are about the most risky way to die ( or become disabled) young. They won’t give up this ability. It is “better than” god forbid! Not having the ability to drive.

    And I know that other factors contribute to our dependence on fossil fuels, but driving is a huge part of it. We are killing our planet for our cars. We go to war over it. We destroy communities over it when workers get downsized at car plants. We have this horribly harmful agriculture economy where our food is shipped from thousands of miles away because of cars, we put highways through parks and wilderness areas in order to drive. We spend hours commuting to work because of cars.

    So, if the world were full of blind people who could not drive, would that be bad? We would have locally based economies. We would not be killing Iraqi civilians over oil, we would not be contemplating the rape of the Alaskan wilderness for it, we would be safer, have more time for our families and persuits, have more money, etc.

    This example may be a bit esoteric, but my point is that ability doesn’t always lead to great and wonderful things. And disability doesn’t always lead to limitations and deficits.

    Without disabled people and their “less than” abilities and needs, we might not have the internet (TTY baudot code being the zygote of the internet), we wouldn’t have the vacuutainer (the syringe that allows phlebotomist to draw your blood with one hand and change vials. Universally used now and invented by a one-handed physician.) We wouldn’t have the gyroscope technology used in the Segue (and other more useful applications), that Dean Kamen originally invented for the ibot wheelchair. We wouldn’t have all the voice activated devices we now have which came out of the Dragon Dictate software developed for disabled people who couldn’t use a keyboard. Nor all the talking devices that allow non native English speakers to use things like the ATM. Those came from the technology that blind people use for their computers. We wouldn’t have the public transit we do have, that was fought for and continues to be fought for by disabled people. We wouldn’t have all the curb cuts and ramps that UPS delivery people, people moving into new apartments, and paren’s with strollers enjoy. We wouldn’t have a lot of things or at least as soon as we did) that the mainstream public enjoys and benefits from.

    Society needs disabled people. We are a value added element of society. Sure, seeing is something of value, but not seeing brings with it a whole ‘nother set of value that are at least equal to seeing. The door may have shut on some things when WCD lost her ability to walk, but (not to speak for her, but) I’m sure a whole new set of great things opened up to her. So it really is just different to be disabled, not less than, just different.

  23. 23
    outlier says:

    First, disability is not an abhoration or a deficit. It is a normal part of the human condition. It is part of humanity. There is no perfect human specimen out there. Some disabilities are easier to see and define than others, but we all have disabilities. And we all will likely become disabled (in the traditional sense) at some point in our lifetime.

    It’s a non-sequitur. It doesn’t follow that, because we are all imperfect/disabled, therefore disability isn’t a deficit.

    That would be like saying that bad knees, back pain, and difficult childbirth are no big deal because they’re part of the human condition. The fact that they are common doesn’t prevent me from pointing them out as undesirable.

    What’s more logical is to say that we’re all subject to a range of deficits.

    Saying that there are blind people out there who do just fine won’t keep me from wanting to avoid becoming blind, just like the fact that plenty of people go through painful childbirth won’t make me want to go through it myself.

    I have a condition that is invisible, and that I’m not sure you would define as a disability, but I do consider it a deficit. That’s why the “disabilities are no big deal” argument leaves me cold.

  24. 24
    Dianne says:

    Most people would say that because of my disability, my methods of transportation are inferior to those who are able to drive.

    A minor demonstration of how perspective can change whether one looks at a disability and says, “how horrid” or “that’s different”. I grew up in a city where there was, at the time, literally no public transportation. I hated the dependence on people who could drive. To me, public transportation is freedom and a vastly superior form of transportation.

  25. 25
    Sailorman says:

    I also appreciate the issues behind the semantics.

    I think that yet another issue is that it is easier (though still not easy!) to define what to “avoid saying” with respect to certain other groups: women, men, whites, POC, etc. But because “disabled” or “disability” has such an enormous spectrum of people under its umbrella (many of whom also are members of other, disempowered, groups) it is much more difficult.

    IOW, the fact that “disabled” includes a previously healthy but now bedridden by arthritis 80-year-old man in the same group as a severely brain damaged preemie; an Iraq veteran adjusting to a recent loss of a foot; and a well adjusted teen who takes medication in secret to reduce the frequency and duration of her manic/depressive episodes… well, that makes it very difficult to talk about them in the same group. From an outside perspective, they seem to have many more differences between themselves than they do shared characteristics.

    And to the degree that I treat them as having a common thread, how do I do so without pointing out that the commonality between them is one of “disability,” which is a point that they well may not appreciate? This last question seriously confuses me, and is not at all rhetorical.

  26. I just saw Mandolin’s call out to me, and so now I will have to go back and read this thread more carefully. (I have been browsing while going back and forth to the kitchen.) To find invective that does not somehow construct itself on the metaphors emerging from an oppressive/discriminatory view of some outgroup or other is going to be tough–if I have understood correctly the gist of that part of this thread–in part because the whole point of invective is to insult, and what makes insults effective is that they put the object of the insult down or out (metaphorically, the spacial position of whichever group the insult refers to). This is not, of course, to say that it isn’t worth trying, and it’s worth considering what it would be like to live in a world where calling someone irrational could have the same kind of power as words like “crazy” or expressions like “are you out of your mind?” and the like. (And I should add that I am specifically not thinking of the way in which “irrational” has been used against women because of women’s supposed congenital irrationality.)

    Ok, lots of ideas swimming in my head, but I have to get to work. I will hopefully come back to this later.

  27. 27
    Leora says:

    I think, outlier, that you are so invested in the idea of disability as deficit that you can’t see the forest through the trees. I’m not saying that in and of itself, isolated among all other factors of the human condition, that sight is or is not equal to or greater than blindness. Sight is useful, and offers asthetic value to the user of it.

    But I’m looking at the whole human being. A person made up of a tapestry of characteristics, each one on a continuum of ability levels. Society accommodated ability levels and physical characteristics on an averaging basis. For example, I’m sure some engineer somewhere can tell you that our society is most perfectly set up for people who are (say) 5’10”. Stair height, chairs, cupboards, drinking fountains, theatre seats, etc. all designed to the median users height. Now, if I’m 6’1″ or 5’5″, then I have to make slight accomodations that a person of the optimum height doesn’t have to make. If I’m 6’9″ or 4’9″ these society standards really start affecting my life on a very real and difficult basis. Yet, a person who is 6’9″ is an NBA hero, not considered disabled. A person who is 4’9″ is a “little person” and suffers discrimination by people who consider him or her to be disabled. It is arbitrary, to some extent, who we consider disabled and who we don’t. People who qualify for developmental disability services used to be (roughly) those whose IQ was less than 85. Now, the criteria changed and people eligible for services have to have an IQ of less than 75 and be at least 2 standard deviations below the norm on an adaptive behavior scale. All those between 75-85 didn’t suddenly become smart and nondisabled. Society just decided to change who it would provide services and accomodations to.

    Vision, hearing, walking are more obvious and cut and dry because the peak of the bell curve is pretty steep in those instances. A vast majority of people’s visual acuity is between 20/60 and 20/20. But 20/20 isn’t perfect vision. There are people who have better vision than that. It is just the upper end of average. So we decide that most standard type will be in 10 or 12 pt. font. And suddenly, everyone who can’t read anything smaller than 18 pt. font is defined as low vision. That’s an arbitrary number.

    Whenever I discuss this, people say to me, well I have X thing wrong with me. I have pain or arthritis or a bad back and it sucks and you can’t tell me it doesn’t. Hey, I’m not saying it doesn’t. I’m not saying it isn’t there. Pain sucks, losing function is hard. It is like a death sometimes that needs to be grieved. But it shouldn’t be something that automatically throws you into this “other” or imperpect human catagory. Pain, arthritis, bad backs, vision loss or whatever is real. But having these conditions is not “different from the norm” or something that should put you in an “other” category from those who meet some arbitrarily defined idea of perfect physical state in our society. It is called being human. Sometimes it is caused prematurely from the norm because of accident or disease, but most of the time, it is called aging. Unless you die in a car accident at 20, every single one of us will face a decline of our bodily functions. Every. Single. One of us. So why are we putting those whose bodies are in various stages of that decline as being “other”? Not worth including or accommodating? Why are we comparing in our language, blindness to lack of knowledge or making “retard” into such a hate word? Why do these things invoke such pity? It is because in our society, we have such an overrated and exaturated value placed on youth and health so that if you aren’t young and physically healthy, you are at a deficit. It is not unlike overvaluing women who are young and (what we traditionally consider) beautiful. And undervaluing those who are not X height, X weight and have X boob size. It is just an extension of that prejudice.

  28. 28
    outlier says:

    Leora, you seem to have two different (and contradictory) lines of thought that don’t jibe together. If your response to me is this:

    So why are we putting those whose bodies are in various stages of that decline as being “other”? Not worth including or accommodating?

    well, I’m not sure what you’re responding to, because I don’t make those claims.

    If your response is this:

    I’m not saying that in and of itself, isolated among all other factors of the human condition, that sight is or is not equal to or greater than blindness. Sight is useful, and offers asthetic value to the user of it.

    then you seem to agree, so why the need for three long paragraphs worth of exposition?

    I think the issue is that someone who says “Being blind would suck” is automatically assumed to hold an entire host of anti-disability positions. That’s not always the case.

  29. 29
    Leora says:

    I’mworking, so I can only give a quick answer; but what I am saying is that you can recognize the physical difference and appreciate that it is not necessarily lesslthan.

    Another example would be women. Most women are smaller, less muscular,and less able to do activities of strength as men. I recognize this. But I would not say that the state of womanhood is less than the state of manhood, even if men physically have an advantage.

    You are trying to separate out the medical aspect of the disability from the entire social context that the state of disability exists in. If you are a doctor, this might be appropriate to work in thismedical model. But in real life, disability is a social condition as well as a medical one. This is what I think you are having trouble with. I do think that people do, andhave the right to, see their own bodily functions however they see fit. If you think it is less than to be blind, fine. But people who don’t have that particular issue have no right to tell those that do how they should perceive it. And the social default should be to assume normalcy in all body states. Instead, the social default is to see body function differences as deficits.

    Only 50 years ago (and still today sometimes) people would have said the same thing about blacks and gays. That they have a physical deficiency which is less than.

  30. 30
    outlier says:

    But people who don’t have that particular issue have no right to tell those that do how they should perceive it.

    And vice-versa.

    And the social default should be to assume normalcy in all body states. Instead, the social default is to see body function differences as deficits.

    Normal is a statistical concept. My position is that even normal constitutes a deficit.

  31. 31
    Kate L. says:

    I only got half way through the comments, my apologies if I am repeating someone here. B-mar, I have a real, concrete example of how having an impaired body can actually have an advantage over having an unimpaired body, forget about being just as good as.

    I have a neuromuscular disease that affects may balance, gait and strength in my lower limbs. I can walk with no assistance, though I walk better with AFOs (ankle, foot orthotics). It’s something I’ve had all my life, it’s progressive and at times, it sucks. But, mostly, it’s just part of who I am. It can be frustrating, but what is MORE frustrating is disablist culture, which I avoided for a long, long time by keeping the disability “hidden” because, I could. I can’t so much anymore, and I’m increasingly less inclined to do it anyway because it’s too much damn work. Anyway, like I said, it can be annoying, but truly is not anywhere near as troubling as being broke and trying to take care of a family. But I digress.

    A few months ago, I broke my leg pretty badly. It had nothing whatsoever to do with my impairment, it could have happened to anyone on 2 legs. It required surgery and 8 weeks of non-weight bearing, which pretty much meant I had 2 choices – a wheel chair or crutches. I chose wheel chair for a variety of reasons despite semi protest from many medical personnel because their “walking” bias is unbelievable. Let me tell you, being in a chair, so long as the physical area I was in was accessible was 1000 times better than being on crutches. I had free hands, I didn’t waste tremendous amounts of physical energy trying to support my weight all in my upper body in order to get from point A to point B, I could cook and prepare meals, help my daughter on and off the potty, basically do all the daily life skills that I needed to do. I adjusted to the wheel chair VERY fast. I needed no occupational therapy at all and was able to pick up life basically where I left off for those 8 weeks. I was not burdened AT ALL by the psychological threat of being in a wheel chair that a previously able bodied person would more than likely go through. Multiple people remarked about my cheerful disposition despite the injury and how quickly I adapted. I’m telling you the one reason I adapted so quickly and so easily is because I’m not particularly fussed when my body doesn’t work “normally”. I’m kind of used to it by now and so I just go with the flow and let the adaptation occur, because the human body is incredibly adept at adaptation as long as the psychological/cultural barriers are out of the way. I felt the same way about pregnancy. Maybe I just had a much easier pregnancy than other people do (it’s possible), but I really had no trouble adjusting to the physical changes pregnancy creates because I’m so used to having to adjust. The experience of impairment over many years enables me to adapt to unrelated illness/injury experiences much more quickly than my able bodied peers.

    The reason you can’t believe that having full use of 2 legs is better than not having full use is because you have an ingrained “normality” bias. And, when you are less mobile/ become partially or temporarily disabled as will more than likely occur you will more than likely waste a lot of time and energy on having to adapt to the new situation. I don’t have to do that and it is ONLY because of my previous experience of impairment.

  32. 32
    Leora says:

    “and vice versa”

    Oh! Great. Then people of color and women and other minorities should just stop complaining about how others perceive them. If someone wants to call me a bitch or my (part Jewish) sons an antisemetic slur then that is just fine. We have no right to tell them how we would like to be perceived. All those WOC should just shut the hell up about Marcotte’s book illustrations, too.

    I’ll give you “normalcy” as a statistical construct. I hate the concept myself. Perhaps there is a better word that I am at a loss to find right now. But the default should be acceptance and nonvalue judgments about bodily differences.

  33. 33
    outlier says:

    Leora, that doesn’t logically follow from what I said, either.

    What follows from “vice-versa” is that if you get to make your own evaluations on the merits of being blind vs. sighted, and others shouldn’t question it, then you have to extend others the same courtesy.

    A statement about being able/not able to do something isn’t the same as making a value statement about a person.

  34. 34
    Sarah says:

    To go to an example from the OP: “black and white thinking.” Aside from the fact that the idea is a social construct to begin with, many disabled people who have been medically diagnosed with “conditions” relating to “black and white” thinking don’t always agree that this kind of cognition is inherently inferior. I’m one of them; I have Asperger’s Syndrome and in some ways I appreciate my “rigid” thinking because it allows me to have a strong sense of ethics and justice. (Not that this is exclusive to AS.) In a real-life context, traits can’t be separated out so easily. Why idealize a physical/mental specimen which doesn’t even exist? None of us are going to be “perfect” anytime soon, so why label some of our own traits as “deficient”? Such an attitude undermines the concept of self-acceptance which many different movements have stressed.

    I can understand why people may be averse to change, and obviously becoming disabled later in life is a big change. (Conversely, so can “losing” a disability.) But I think it’s rather presumptuous of nondisabled people to assume they know for sure what having a particular disability is like. Sorry, but to some extent statements like “being blind would suck” do imply troubling attitudes towards blind people. These statements engender pity, not to mention the idea that blind people are somehow “broken” or “less than.”

  35. Keep it respectful, guys. And, please, remember that those who have the experience of living with disability have insight and information that those who merely fear disability do not.

    On The Rights to Perceive…

    Technically speaking, no one has the right to make an assessment of another person and their “condition.” But we do this all the time. We assess who is beautiful and who is not. We make judgments on the basis of fat or not. We make judgments about race. Our very culture privileges and rewards these kinds of judgments. And to counter the unfairness that comes with them, we have things like race sensitivity trainings. We educate people about race and fat. We have laws that protect people from making negative judgments based on these assessments. Those interventions in hostility use information that comes from people who “have the condition” of being fat, raced, disabled, female, etc. In a less technical sense, we also have the “mile in my shoes” kinds of commonplaces/gnomic things. While, for you, becoming disabled may register as a disaster, you learn to live with it. You move through it. You take up your life — and at that moment, you understand that living is not necessarily defined by the physics of your body.

    On Disability As Deficit.

    Some people are born with blonde hair, some with brown. Our culture treats those with blonde somewhat differently (for better or for worse) than those with brown, but brown hair is not a deficit — because culturally we accept the fact that it is a kind of physical variation. We don’t treat brown hair in the industry of medicine, but we do treat other kinds of variation. But that’s the point. Bodies show up in all kinds of conditions, experience medical trauma, wear out, get old, …. but they are just bodies. We may be able to apply the physical/medical equivalent of hair dye so that they can do more, but when we do …. it is also with the awareness that society interprets and has a scale of value on the bodies and their “conditions.”

  36. 36
    dustsparkle says:

    If metaphors that use disability as an insult are wrong (which I agree they are), then are metaphors that use ability as a plus just as wrong? For example, saying “I see” or “I hear you” to mean that you understand.

  37. 37
    Sailorman says:

    I think that internal cognitive biases make is more likely that all of us will strive to feel happy in our own skin, whatever our condition: given the choice between accepting one’s body and being constantly unhappy about it, the former is usually preferable.

    So it seems a bit ridiculous to expect that people with disabilities–especially those who have had them for their entire life–would be lining up to attack their own selves with disparaging comments. In fact, it seems entirely likely that the reverse is true: not because they’re disabled, but because they’re human, and we humans seem to do a lot of self justification, especially about things that we can’t or don’t want to control.

    It’s slightly different for others, mostly because they have an easier time testing their convictions (it’s easier to simulate disability than the reverse, at least for many issues) but it’s clear that I and others like me have the same tendency to avoid cognitive dissonance. Again: not because I don’t have a disability, but because I am human, and we humans seem to do a lot of self justification, especially about things that we can’t or don’t want to control.

    So that said, I am beginning to wonder if there’s a way to avoid being a dickhead about disability issues without needing to accept the off-proffered concept that there “are no” disabilities at all. Which as I see it amounts either to “every cloud has an equivalent silver lining” or “every piece of silver comes with an equivalent cloud” depending on which side you happen to be on.

    I don’t really think that’s true, myself, though i can certainly see how people would have that view. Heck, even across my fairly short life I have been in a variety of physical conditions, and it seems pretty darn obvious that some are superior to others, at least to me. But it is equally apparent that the reverse is obvious to other people. And it seems…unseemly? (that’s probably the right word) to have an argument about it: neither ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ the argument seems like a pleasant outcome.

    Is there any way to have a disability discussion without having the parties on all sides of said discussion share a particular view of “disabilities are good/neutral/bad?” If so I would love to figure out what it is.

  38. 38
    Kay Olson says:

    Sailorman: It’s slightly different for others, mostly because they have an easier time testing their convictions (it’s easier to simulate disability than the reverse, at least for many issues) but it’s clear that I and others like me have the same tendency to avoid cognitive dissonance.

    See, this is not an accurate statement from my perspective — I’m referring most especially to the part in parentheses. You can simulate impairment easily enough by putting on a blindfold or binding a leg up as if it wasn’t there or using a medication that induces dizziness, but that is just playing with one aspect of what disability is. It doesn’t uncover the societal experience of disability any more than blackface or wearing a burka for a day gets at what it means to be black or a Muslim woman, respectively, in part because neither a black face nor wearing a burka even begin to sum up either blackness or being a Muslim woman.

    One of the things simulation can’t get at is what it can be like to “pass” as nondisabled, for example. Also, many disabled people do have experience as nondisabled, so why the assumption that those currently nondisabled have an advantage in understanding the whole picture better?

    As far as experiencing cognitive dissonance goes: Our society asks it of people all the time with regard to measures of beauty vs. the realities of race, height, weight, eye color, etc. Most social justice movements might be described in part as resistance against this cognitive dissonance (or speaking out about the experience of double consciousness — as opposed to some measly single consciousness, of course), but we don’t generally argue that someone like Kate Moss has the advantage because she can “test her convictions” re her superior status as beautiful by simulating what less beautiful is about. That would be silly, no?

  39. And to the degree that I treat them as having a common thread, how do I do so without pointing out that the commonality between them is one of “disability,” which is a point that they well may not appreciate? This last question seriously confuses me, and is not at all rhetorical.

    To Sailorman. Practical stuff first: I’m not sure why you would want to bring the label into your treatment of an individual in a given situation. Does knowing that they are “disabled” or that they might identify as disabled change how you would act? Theoretical stuff next: I’d like to break this down by thinking about the difference between having an impairment and identifying as disabled. It’s that whole how do you identify or not thing — not that that affects how you should treat someone. Impairment is the medical condition. Disablement is what happens when social and cultural barriers (including attitude) prevent you from participating as a full citizen. Just because we don’t always choose to identify or acknowledge each other (there’s a crip closet, you know) doesn’t mean you should treat us differently.

    If metaphors that use disability as an insult are wrong (which I agree they are), then are metaphors that use ability as a plus just as wrong? For example, saying “I see” or “I hear you” to mean that you understand.

    To Dustsparkle: I’ve been thinking about this a fair amount for the past couple of years. I think my current take is that this is not so much about “ability” as opposed to disability; it’s a question of us blurring the vocabulary of biological perception with cognitive perception. And it’s pretty consistent across the board, as you point out. I’ve also spent some time with “under stand” “walk you through it”. I think Western culture underestimates how physical that which we often understand as intellectual actually is. My most recent thoughts on this are here.

    So that said, I am beginning to wonder if there’s a way to avoid being a dickhead about disability issues without needing to accept the off-proffered concept that there “are no” disabilities at all. Which as I see it amounts either to “every cloud has an equivalent silver lining” or “every piece of silver comes with an equivalent cloud” depending on which side you happen to be on.

    To Sailorman: In part, see above. Some of this rests on applying the distinction between disability and impairment. Do you believe in — OMG here’s another one — “race-blind” culture? No. Don’t answer that. I mean simply there is a way to perceive the differences of impairment and use of accommodations and still interact with the person as a human. If you treat the person as you would yourself expect to be treated, accept any accommodation they may use — don’t pick your coffee date in an inaccessible place — I don’t see why this is an issue on an individual level. You are responsible for and have control over what you do. But, you personally, cannot get me a job or prevent me from encountering prejudice — you can educate people whenever you see it happening. But it is a societal problem. There again, recognizing impairment as neutral and understanding disability as the result of an encounter with societal barriers will help. When you do this, you don’t have to even go to the “every cloud stuff.” (I find that particular thread of thought naive and unhelpful to, say, the project of putting Braille on a train schedule).

  40. 40
    Sailorman says:

    Kay & WCD, thanks for responses. I’ll chew on them before replying.

  41. 41
    Leora says:

    “What follows from “vice-versa” is that if you get to make your own evaluations on the merits of being blind vs. sighted, and others shouldn’t question it, then you have to extend others the same courtesy.”

    Okay, lets make this about the merits of being black. If I’m black, then I have a right to decide myself how I feel about being black. We agree. But are you saying that I should just accept how you perceive my own blackness?

    I have to inasmuch as I cannot control your thoughts. But I don’t have to accept that it is right. And I don’t have to accept that (assuming) you as a white person are in a place to judge the merits of my blackness.

    I remember a conversation I had with a guy in highschool. He said he just wasn’t attracted to black women. I said, given a choice between getting with someone like Roseanne Barr or Vanessa Williams, you would choose Roseanne Barr? (Now please forgive my ‘beauty prejudices here, I was in highschool and I now look at this question somewhat differently.) He said yes. He isn’t so much attracted to Roseanne Barr, but being with Vanessa Williams would be repulsive to him. So obviously, the fact that William’s skin is X number of shades darker makes her beauty less than that of a lighter skinned traditionally less attractive woman. Okay. Again, I can’t control his thoughts. But if Vanessa Williams was right in the room while he said that, do you think she is going to say, “Oh, I totally accept that you percieve my skin color as repulsive! You have every right to do that! Please tell me more about how bad my skin color is and go out in the world and make sure others know your perceptions as well. And if that means that I don’t get hired for my next ten modeling contracts, well, that’s okay. Because you have a right to perceive me how you want to and it has nothing to do with prejudice or ignorance!”

    So, yeah, go ahead and think whatever you want about blindness or whatever. But no, you don’t have the right to pass judgment on something you’ve never experienced. And no, simulating disability for a day does not count.

  42. Steady on, steady on. Putting on the Moderator Hat.

    My original post was about how argument by analogy works. If we’re complaining about how argument for legitimacy can leverage off the claims of another minoritized group where that group is disabled, let’s also be careful about how we use other groups to make our claim. I’m guilty of this a little — see above when I talk about Negro and African American as naming terms. But I am working on it. In my defence, however, that is a very limited example that doesn’t require any understanding of blackness. One thing that the previous weeks of hurt and ugliness have taught us is that “being black” and what it means really isn’t clear or easily understood.

  43. 43
    Leora says:

    WCD, Exactly, and I don’t mean to overuse the “black” analogy. But what blackness is, or what disability is, is highly subjective to the experience. I would not assume to define what being black means for someone else anymore than I could know how it feels to be black myself. And I resent the implication that others feel they have the right to do so in regards to disability.

    But, I will disengage so you can pull your moderator status back to lukewarm, at least. Thanks for the discussion.

  44. 44
    outlier says:

    Leora, I have a problem with the word “perceive” in the way you are using it. Perception is something that happens automatically, before thoughts act on what is being perceived. Maybe a better word would be judgement?

    And I don’t feel the analogy works, because I don’t see disabled people as inferior, repulsive, or a group that should be discriminated against. Also, “attracted to” is an arena where repulsion is the rule more than the exception.

    But, to go with that analogy in a different direction, take white skin. It’s deficient in melanin, which can lead to painful sunburn. I have no problem calling that a deficit. Obviously, it doesn’t lead to discrimination. You can have one without the other.

    Also, don’t forget, you did say this:

    I’m not saying that in and of itself, isolated among all other factors of the human condition, that sight is or is not equal to or greater than blindness. Sight is useful, and offers asthetic value to the user of it.

    Which is no more or less than my point.

  45. 45
    dodgerdodger says:

    This post gave me a lot to think about. I’ll admit, the quality of the argument is definitely running up against some of my basic assumptions and destabilizing them.

    I guess I’ll try to frame my dissonance with a question.

    For a person like Leora, blindness and deafness are not deficits. They are facets of her everyday existence, which present inconveniences (some of which could be avoided with more accommodation from the abled) and discrimination because of the social construct of ‘disabled,’ but which do not make her feel as though she is ‘missing out’ and living an inherently impaired and imperfect life. There are things about her range of ability that she feels improve her life, even though they are considered ‘disabilities,’ like the fact that she never developed a dependence on cars. I think I understand all this (correct me if it appears I haven’t).

    As a person without blindness or deafness, however, losing sight and hearing would strike me as a tremendous loss. I am not saying that it is a Loss in the Abstract; I am saying that it would be a tremendous loss to me personally. Because I, and I am only talking about myself here, predicate much of the enjoyment of my life on things that can only be perceived through sight and hearing.

    I am not saying that when I begin to change as a part of aging, I won’t adjust. I hope that I will, that I will learn new ways of deriving enjoyment and meaning from life.

    But for myself, becoming blind or deaf at this moment would be a real loss. It would be, for me, an absolute negative. I would be angry, I would grieve, it would take me a while to recover my balance and my contentment.

    It’s a natural inclination for humans to perceive things that would hurt us, personally, as part of an abstract category of ‘bad.’ If a particular disability would take away from my life, it’s natural to think of that as bad. Without consciousness and consideration of the experiences of others, this perception of the ‘personally threatening’ as the ‘bad’ can have terrible consequences for the way the abled treat the disabled, and I agree that this kind of prejudice is unjust.

    But my question is: given that my personal experience of becoming blind (for example) would be negative, isn’t it natural for me to extend it as a negative metaphor? While keeping in mind the emotional effect that word use can have on those who hear us, is it really necessary to excise a wide set of expressive metaphors from our language even though, for the speaker personally, the mechanism by which the denotation of disability is extended to the connotation of ‘something negative’ draws force from a very real perception of the harm a disability would cause to the speaker’s own quality of life?

    I know that if I replaced my whole argument with ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ instead of things like ‘deaf,’ ‘dumb,’ ‘lame,’ etc., I would definitely feel differently as a gay man. I would argue that the personal experience of ‘becoming gay’ as ‘something bad’ is still predicated on a socially institutionalized form of prejudice. But the question I just put forward is still what I’m running up against in trying to process this post and the comments that have come with it.

    In any case, extremely thought-provoking stuff. Thank you.

  46. 46
    Sweet Machine says:

    This is an outstanding post and thoughtful discussion; I really appreciate the care with which everyone, especially WCD and Leora, is writing — this pervasive metaphorical bias in language can be incredibly difficult to uncover if you’re not keyed to it by personal experience. I am (so far) able-bodied myself, but I have a brother who has cognitive disabilities, so words on the “retarded” spectrum are what I notice first (I wrote a post about that recently, actually). But it took becoming good friends with a woman who uses a wheelchair and is a disability activist for me to start “hearing” other types of disability-negative language. I’m looking forward to listening to further discussion here.

  47. 47
    outlier says:

    As a person without blindness or deafness, however, losing sight and hearing would strike me as a tremendous loss. I am not saying that it is a Loss in the Abstract; I am saying that it would be a tremendous loss to me personally. Because I, and I am only talking about myself here, predicate much of the enjoyment of my life on things that can only be perceived through sight and hearing.

    See, this is exactly the point I failed to articulate. If I made some statement upthread about not wanting to lose my sight, it was about me, a sighted individual, personally. Not a statement about how other, sight-impaired people should perceive their experience or be perceived by others.

  48. 48
    dustsparkle says:

    WCD – Thanks for answering my question, and I am interested in reading more about what you have to say. I couldn’t get your link to work though, could you post it again?

  49. ModHat:No need for anyone to disengage. Watching the way argument is made is part of what’s up here.

    WCDHat: OOps. Sorry. Html blooper. Link is here, hopefully.

    On Loss. This is a hard one. I won’t argue you don’t feel loss. Every one I know has been though a period of loss — there’s a transition, a grieving period that goes on perhaps in waves for who knows how long. I still feel grief, for example. But the thing is that personal loss does not equate with “bad.” And it certainly does not equate with the social and cultural badness that PWD have to face every day. In fact, it is the temporary able-bodieds’ fear of that loss that is a large contributor to the prejudice. You experience the loss and pain, but society is what tells you you know have a deficit, that you are a worthless, unemployable person. Because really, it is possible to have a rich and meaningful life.

  50. 50
    Leora says:

    Some of you that are asking for more links to read might want to check out Blogging Against Disablism Day (Yesterday) at:


    Also, don’t know if this will mean anything to anyone, but I will note that I was born sighted and hearing. I did not become significantly vision and hearing impaired until my teenage years, and slowly have been losing vision and hearing ever since. I still have a small amount of remaining vision and hearing, but it will go at some point as well. Of course there is loss! And grief and adjustment. Tearing down and rebuilding. Some of my vision/hearing loss happened gradually over time, and sometimes suddenly. When I was pregnant with my twins, I developed preeclampsia and bell’s palsy and had a facial hemmorage. I lost a chunk of sight then suddenly, just two weeks before my twins were born prematurely. Talk about having to be quick on the uptake! Yes, there was loss and fear and anxiety. But I think along the lines of what WCD said, loss is not equivalent to “bad”. Loss is life. I think losing vision while fighting for my life and the lives of my unborn children, well, it just didn’t seem like that big of deal. Just one of the usual bumps in the road of life we all have to take.

    I don’t know how to explain this any more than I have. But I thought you might have assumed I had never been able to see or hear and thus didn’t understand the value of sight and hearing. I do. I can no longer see the lunar eclipse or spot a deer along side a forested road. But I seem to be able to enjoy a peace and tranquility that others can’t.

    I think what gets me about this “less than” issue is something along the lines of this: We all have gains and losses in our lives. We lose our jobs, good friends and family die, we become disabled. But sometimes the loss is the best thing that ever happened to you (just ask dooce in relation to being fired). But it is more than every cloud has a silver lining. For example, my mother died a few years ago. And that was a loss for me and I grieved that loss, not unlike the times I have grieved for the loss of my sight. But people’s parents die. It happens to all of us. And others might say, how sad that your mother died. But after the initial grieving period, people don’t think about it much in regards to you. They do not define you by what they perceive as what they think your loss feels like. Different people are going to react to losing a parent differently. Some might find relief if their parent was abusive, some might be devastated for years, some might be sad about it and then move on. Other people allow you to do that. They don’t define every conversation, every thought, every perception and judgment about you by how they think THEY would handle your loss. Would you like it if five or ten years after your mother died, every single person you talked to said, “Gosh! I’m so sorry about the loss of your mother. It must be so hard to get through the day. Oh? You’ve moved on and now you want to talk about the job opportunity? Well, I just don’t know if we can do that! If I had lost my mother, it would be such a loss. I don’t know how I would even work and enjoy life if my mother had died. I mean, having a mother alive is so much better than having a dead one. There is no way you can say that you’ve learned and grown from the experience and you are a better person for it. I think you are wrong about being okay with the loss of your mother.” And on and on and on infinity with every single person you ever talk to for the rest of your life.

    So, sure, if you lost your vision you would feel loss. And then you would get over it and move on. And you won’t think about it much anymore, and you will go back to enjoying your life. And you would wonder why you ever thought that sight was so important in the first place, even if you sometimes miss seeing the lunar eclipse. It isn’t something that is really going to have any great hinderence on your enjoyment of life.

    But everywhere you go, for the rest of your life, people are going to define you by a loss that you got over long ago, and insist that you must be experiencing a “less than” life because of this one thing that really is no big deal to you. But they will INSIST! that it has to be and that it would be for them. And when you throw 22 million analogies at them in some blog thread somewhere, they will tell you that they are all illogical because your analogies about being black or a woman or whatnot don’t follow because those things are not a loss or a deficit! Even though that is the basis for the very discrimination those groups have been fighting all these years. And having no vision is a deficit! So your analogies don’t fit into my predetermined conception! You’re Wrong! And the fact that homosexuality was medicalized and managed to fight it’s way out of the medical deficiency books and into a normal deviation of the human condition in no way relates to the fact that disability and aging also are normal deviations in the human condition.

    So, even if we will never agree on this point, tell me this. Why, when a whole heard of disabled people say, “Please don’t define us by what you perceive to be a loss. And please don’t use language that reflects a normal part of our human existence to be equated to “bad” or ” less than” or “deficient in. Please let us define our own bodies our way. And know that your judgment about how you would react personally if and when you experience disability is something you can only see through ablist eyes and does strongly affect the way you view and treat us, even if subconsciously. So Please stop that.” Why, when disabled people say this, even if you don’t totally understand, why don’t you just stop? Why is this notion fought so hard? Why aren’t we respected enough to be able to define disability as we see fit? We are the ones who, you know, ARE disabled. We might actually know something about it.

  51. 51
    Sarah says:

    Hey, long-time lurker posting for the first time. Disclaimer: I don’t know bugger-all about disability issues, but I’m trying to figure out what’s being said here.

    People can support the rights of a group to be treated equally and have respect, freedoms, et cetera, without being members of that group or wanting to be members of that group. All experiences are different, but relatively few people are transgender, and most people would see that experience as difficult and uncomfortable. One can personally be opposed to being transgender or even cross-dressing and generally respect other people who are transgender and want them to have equal rights and freedoms. Maybe this is just because this type of hypothetical ally is afraid of losing their own cisgender priviledge, I don’t know. Is it true that with disability, one can individually not want to lose one’s sight or hearing but still think disabled people should be respected, treated equally, etc. and have that be a legitimate view? Or does judging disabilities as losses and inferior to one’s own experience inherently create problems?

  52. 52
    wheelchairdancer says:

    In my personal voice here — I have to agree with Leora on how that supposed loss dominates what people think of us. And that’s difficult. It puts up barriers to access and equality.

    In my moderator voice here — I find myself wanting to toe a fairly hard line about wholescale imaginings of the experience of other groups as negative. It makes for a kind of unintentional minoritizing experience in which we chase our tails looking for something — someone — we can all agree is somehow distasteful. Which is how my post began in the first place.

    To answer Sarah’s question directly: The concept of human rights, as a principle, demands that we fight for equality and justice for all humans. As an argumentative strategy, human rights is nifty — it enables us to make compelling argument without having to marginalize, minoritize or refer back to ourselves and risk getting entangled in our own prejudices and fears.

  53. 53
    Dianne says:

    In fact, it is the temporary able-bodieds’ fear of that loss that is a large contributor to the prejudice.

    I think you’re right. Many able bodied people feel uncomfortable around people with disabilities because they remind them that they are vulnerable. No one is immune from being hit by a car and paralyzed. No one is immune from an illness taking their vision. Certainly, no one is immune from aging. In some ways, the able bodied are trapped in the first stages of shock and mourning the loss when they think of people who are disabled: unless they have friends, co-workers, or family who are disabled, they probably don’t think about the issue for long enough to get over that initial reaction. And people who are scared and uncomfortable often act in unreasonable, prejudiced ways. So, if you can stand it, being an example is a potentially effective mode of activism. Even though it involves answering the same dumb questions over and over again.

    BTW, if you don’t mind my asking, are you a professional dancer? I’d love to see a performance where the dancers were all in wheelchairs. I think you could do interesting things with using the chair as an extension of your body.

  54. 54
    wheelchairdancer says:

    Two thoughts … I hate the burden of being someone else’s learning experiences: I am multiracial, bisexual, disabled, and female. Everytime, I leave the house, I vulnerable to someone else’s prejudice.

    I am a professional dancer; I work for a physically integrated dance company — we mix people with a variety of mobility impairments with nondisabled dancers. There are no pictures and/or video on my site of my company — I blog anonymously. You can read about our most recent tour here. There are a variety of posts under the label dance and dance technique. My site also has links to other physically integrated companies all over the world.

  55. 55
    dodgerdodger says:

    Gosh! I’m so sorry about the loss of your mother. It must be so hard to get through the day. Oh? You’ve moved on and now you want to talk about the job opportunity? Well, I just don’t know if we can do that! If I had lost my mother, it would be such a loss.

    I think that everyone here, at least, can agree that this sort of discrimination is unjust and inexcusable.

    In arguing for the personal perception of disability as a loss, I do not mean to justify or condone anything like what you laid out in the analogious quote, including less severe, but obviously irritating varieties of that sort of discrimination such as consant expressions of sympathy: “It must be so terrible for you to be blind!”

    It is unacceptable, full stop, and the abled have a responsibility to consciously avoid such prejudice against the disabled.

    Yet, if you’ll allow me to continue working with your analogy, there is very little ambiguous in how we view death. Death is a change that comes to us all, both in the form of the deaths of our loved ones and in our own eventual deaths. A healthy individual must come to terms with death and accept its inevitability. He or she may even cultivate an awareness of things that could be considered positive about death, especially as informed by religious traditions. Nonetheless, death is still considered a loss, something ‘bad.’ When we speak in metaphor or simile, we use death and things associated with death to denote the negative (unless what is ‘dying’ is something we don’t like).

    I am not saying that it is right for the abled to define for you your own experience of blindness or deafness by constantly expressing condolence or preventing you from accomplishing things you have no trouble doing in the name of ‘helping.’ But I am still not convinced that it is only possible to end this sort of discrimination by denying an abled speaker’s personal valuation of her sight, hearing, or other capabilities whose absence the majority has defined as ‘disability.’

    I suppose some of my resistence to excising expressions like ‘blind to’ or ‘crazy’ from our language is that I am a linguist, which predisposes me to rejecting attempts to engineer language. And I think that the abled’s personal valuations of the worth of being able to see, hear, etc. are deep enough that the abstraction of their loss to something ‘bad’ is natural and at a core level of extensional meaning. Extensional meanings predicated on senses and capabilities whose absence are considered ‘disability’ aren’t always negative; take the extended uses of the verb ‘to hear,’ for example. It’s quite common crosslinguistically for ‘hear’ to mean ‘informed of something by some means, not necessarily hearing,’ to the extent that the verb tends to be blanched of meaning and a new verb has to be renewed to mean specifically ‘hear with the ears.’ These sorts of spatial and sensoral elaborations of basic meanings into extentional meanings are extremely common (including in manual languages, though in that case it is spatial meanings in particular that are elaborately extended, from what I read).

    Maybe in a circumstance when the abled in general truly respected the disabled and did not view them as ‘less than’ and did not project the abled’s own evaluations of what the disabled were ‘capable of,’ in a circumstance where the culture of the abled did not condone discrimination against the disabled… in such a circumstance expressions that drew a negative association from blindness, deafness, unusual forms of movement, etc. would fall out of the language for being simply illogical. In that case, I would be seriously mistaken in my reluctance to eliminate those expressions from my speech, as it would directly reflect that I did not value the human rights of the disabled.

    But I don’t believe that would happen.

    My current thoughts (open to change) remain that eliminating all expressions that draw metaphorical negative associations from disability means denying the abled’s own valuations of their experience in a way that is unnatural. I think it would be a burden on language and expressiveness that is not justified by what could be gained from the elimination. I guess, fundamentally, I don’t think changing the way you speak changes the way you think. I don’t think changing words is a shortcut to changing conceptual frameworks.

    But this strays into the territory of those who argue for the general idea of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in linguistics and those who argue against it, which is related, but off-topic. In any case, I have just expressed a rather thorough disagreement with both of youm Leora and wheelchairdancer. I am not doing so to be contrarian, but, I hope, in an honest effort to better understand your points. If the way I’ve expressed myself is failing to show that respect, I apologize and I will try to do better.

  56. 56
    Leora says:

    I appreciate your comments, dodgerdodger, and I find this whole area of linguistics quite interesting. Certainly something I could learn from as well. It is an interesting concept. Does thinking about our use of language influence our thoughts? Or if our thoughts aren’t changed by language, then the modifications we are suggesting here are merely superficial.

    I think it probably depends entirely on the user. If you are open to change, to the idea that your belief system may be wrong, and the way your language is used reflects that and is pointed out to you by someone, then thinking about the process of changing your language use might change your belief system. However, if you are not open to change, to evaluating your beliefs and you are very close-minded, then pressure by others to change your language use is something you are just going to do for your own personal social good, and you will not let your underlying beliefs be challenged.

    I still think an able-bodied person can’t “know” what their feelings are in regards to experiencing disability until they get to the other side. They can only project a hypothesis.

    For my 3598th analogy on this topic (I keep hoping that each time I will get a little closer to hitting the ball out of the park. I am as frustrated as you are with all my analogies.) I figured I was going to get the “death is negative and a loss” response. So here is my new one. Keep your fingers crossed?

    So I was thinking, what if you lived in America all your life and suddenly moved to, say, Bangladesh or somewhere equally as different as American culture can be. And you don’t know if you will ever get back to America. And popular social opinion has it that America is a much preferable place to live than Bangladesh. So, when you move, you go into culture shock and you grieve America. Your friends, your lifestyle, the scenery, your favorite hangout at the corner coffee shop, a hundred little things. And (with apologies) Bangladesh sucks. You are miserable. Then, slowly you discover the beauty of life in Bangladesh. The people become your friends, you find their culture refreshing. You find a new stoop to have your coffee on, with good company and beautiful scenery. You have fond memories of America, but you are enjoying where you are.

    What we are talking about, then, is change. Disability is change. Either personal (as in an able-bodied person who becomes disabled) or by societal expectations (expecting that everyone can and should be able to see/hear/walk/whatever.) Change is hard. But change is not always negative, even if it first appears to be. You never will really know how you would feel about life in Bangladesh until you’ve lived there and given it a chance. And yes, some people might hate it and never like it. And some people might love it, but they would all adjust to it. But no one can say, either personally if they’ve never lived there, or assumed by our language, that life is universally worse in Bangladesh. It’s subjective, and there is no reason to assume that language that states its inferiority is accurate. And it isn’t that it is so bad for someone (whose lived there) to say words to the effect that they hate Bangladesh. That is the way they feel and it is a fact for them. But it is stupid for everyone who hasn’t even lived there to to incorporate language that implies that Bangladesh is a miserable place to live when they really don’t know what they would actually experience living there. In doing so, it is unfair to the people who make Bangladesh their home.

    Now, the reason this analogy STILL doesn’t quite work is this: In most cases, moving somewhere is at least somewhat voluntary and somewhat reversable. The change may be hard to deal with and there may be grieving and adjusting involved, but you took on this change knowingly and willingly. The thing about disability is, it happens outside of your control. You don’t get to decide when or where or how you will become disabled. You don’t get the luxury, most of the time, of coming back to the other side. And we ALL hate to have change occur outside of our control. We all will face the change and decline of our bodies. If there is a universal negative to disability, this is probably it. That we don’t get to decide to make the change. So, language that reflects THAT factor would not offend me so much as language that reflects the body condition itself as being negative.

    Okay, I keep saying I’m done with this thread, but dodgerdodger and others keep saying such interesting things that make me think some more. I think somewhere WAAAAY upthread I said that I’m all for open discussion if people are in it for the right reasons, which is to respectfully hash out something together. I could be mistaken on intent, but outlier’s comments did not feel that way to me. Everyone else’s have, and that not only makes for a good discussion, but helps me improve my own understanding and use of language.

  57. 57
    AndiF says:

    Thanks to everyone for this extremely valuable discussion. It has been really helpful and truly enlightening. And I think Leora’s analogies have been very helpful and led to make one for myself.

    I think, Leora, death does make a good analogy. The death of someone we care about is a loss and it is a loss that never goes away but (most) people gradually integrate that loss into the whole core of experiences that make up their lives. The loss is always there but over time it gets attached to the massive web of connections that result from simply being alive. My father died when I was 12; I’m now 57. His death had impact on everything that followed it but everything that followed his death also had an impact on it. So, yes, that death is a part of me but so is everything else that has happened to me. I am, like everyone else, a very complicated human being and I would thoroughly resent it if someone tried to treat his death as defining who I am and then to make it worse, imply I ought to regret being who I am.

  58. 59
    Tara says:

    Wow, thanks to everybody for this discussion. It’s really making my brain (and heart) spin (beat?)

    Leora, it must be a pain to deal with all the analogies, especially when they’re all (by definition being *analogues* and not identities) are vulnerable to just criticism, but since different people identify with different things, I think they do all help (for people who *want* to learn, who will read them constructively and not destructively).

    For me personally the death analogy is helpful. My mother’s death, when I was relatively young, devastated me and in some ways still devastates me. That devastation has a tangible toll (in conjunction with the massive emotional one) – I do think that if she had survived I would be in a different place, have accomplished not only different things but more things, and be more successful (the measure-able, weigh-able things that get counted as success in our culture).
    But it’s very important to me NOT to believe that over all my life is less, my horizons are fewer, etc, than if this did not happen. (different, for sure, not less). Since I can’t live out an alternate time line where my mother didn’t die, experience that life time, and fairly compare it to this one, even *I* can’t say confidently that my life would be better or richer if things had been different (or that her life would be, no matter how hard that is to wrap my mind around). If I can’t, how dare anybody else make that judgment, much less turn around and use that judgment in ways that belittle me or circumscribe my life. Which doesn’t mean I don’t want people to understand and acknowledge and validate how hard the experience of loss was and is, but, like you said so well, on my terms. It’s one thing for me to decide I don’t want to participate in an activity where there will be a lot of mothers and daughters because I think it will be emotionally hard. It’s another thing for a friend to choose not to invite me, or worse, and employer choose not trust me with some task, because they make assumptions about my emotional fragility and abilities.

    I hope that’s not too self centered.

    I’m think this thread will stick with me for a long time anyways, but I’m bookmarking it to make sure it does, and to be able to share it.

  59. 60
    cripchick says:

    many many many props to wcd and leora for this.

    i stopped reading after the first 20 comments so this is mostly geared to early conversation as i have no idea what’s been said in the last 30 comments. but just like anti-racist work and trying to challenge white privilege, it’s *generally* accepted that people are the experts on their experiences (sarcasm noted hopefully). you can say over and over you don’t want a disability and throw your perceptions onto us but you have no idea what our lives are like. thank you for assuming and making it on us to *prove* that what we’re saying is true.

    we live with our bodies and if we do not love who we are (i’ll admit, this is still pretty radical), we accept that this is who we are. it’s our experience. it’s the way we see the world. just because this doesn’t fit into what you think is good or normal, why try to convince us so? i dare you to tell a Deaf person that they’re deficit because they don’t hear or a person on the autism spectrum that they’re not “normal”. we have our own standards and don’t feel a need to fit into what dominant culture tells us.

    through our disabilities, we enjoy so many pleasures that you will never understand or even experience. we are a part of one of the most resilient, beautiful, diverse communities on this planet. for that alone, i wouldn’t trade this gimp body for anything in the world.

    again, thank you for your assumptions though.

  60. 61
    Dianne says:

    i dare you to tell a Deaf person that they’re deficit because they don’t hear or a person on the autism spectrum that they’re not “normal”.

    I don’t know about deafness, but being a probable Aspie myself, I have to say that it IS a #@&% major deficit. Humans are evolved to be social and an inability to interpret social cues correctly is a PROBLEM. Being able to assume that people will only take offense when you meant to be offensive is a neurotypical’s privilege.

    That having been said, if a “cure” were found for AS, I wouldn’t take it. I’m used to my brain the way it is, I wouldn’t want to risk losing the random compensatory abilities, etc. But if there were a prosthesis that would let me read facial expression I’d certainly use it. Which I suppose means that I want to have it both ways, but who doesn’t?

  61. 62
    Dianne says:

    I hate the burden of being someone else’s learning experiences: I am multiracial, bisexual, disabled, and female. Everytime, I leave the house, I vulnerable to someone else’s prejudice.

    First thought: Yeah, that sounds annoying.

    Second thought: I haven’t the slightest idea what to do about it. The time when people aren’t vulnerable to prejudice due to their gender, race, sexuality, body habitus, physical or mental abilities, etc is far away.

  62. 63
    Bjartmarr says:

    Well, I said I would take a while to think about it, and I did.

    To address what some of the other posters have written: I do understand that when one door closes, another one opens, and the second door may be just as good as or better than the first. And I know what “disability 101″ means; my issue was that Google didn’t. ;)

    I absolutely agree that the inhabitant of each body gets to decide how to classify her own body. Only assholes and shrinks get to tell other people how to feel; I try not to be the former, and I don’t have the education to be the latter.

    Nevertheless, it does seem like it’s useful to be able to make broad statements about certain classes of similar abilities. Forming these opinions should not be based on my perception of these abilities, but on the people’s own opinions of their own bodies. For example, I might observe that 95% of fast runners see their own ability as being good, and I could conclude that, in general, running fast is a good thing.

    Similarly, when 90% of deaf people tell me that being deaf isn’t a bad thing, I have to conclude that, in general, being deaf isn’t a bad thing. And if 90% of people with disabilities tell me the same, then I must conclude the same about those disabilities.

    “But”, you might say, “most of the people on this list have said that their disabilities aren’t bad things, so shouldn’t we allow that disabilities are, in general, not bad things?”

    My concern is that we’ve got a sampling error here. The folks on this list who can’t hear or can’t walk have made it abundantly clear about how they feel about themselves, and how others with similar abilities feel about themselves. But people with other disabilities haven’t — specifically, those with disabilities that might traditionally be thought of as “less severe”. I’m not convinced that people with (for example) painful backs see their abilities as equal to those of people with pain-free backs. In fact, I strongly suspect the opposite — that, based on people’s own opinions of themselves, I can safely conclude that painful backs are, in general, a bad thing.

    Why is this ranking of abilities useful? Well, it allows us to make society-wide decisions that end up increasing happiness. Most people (but not all) with typing-induced wrist pain generally see their injuries as a bad thing. Their individual opinions led to the generally accepted idea that typing injuries are a bad thing. As someone with wrist injuries, I want wrist injuries to be seen as a bad thing. I want people to avoid them, to educate others about how to avoid them, and to make equipment that reduces them and that accomodates those of us who already have them. And I don’t think that would happen if wrist injuries were generally seen as not being a bad, “lesser”, thing.

  63. 64
    Leora says:

    Well, my quick initial reaction is that 1) Those that identify as being members of the disability community are in general consensus about this issue, so majority would rule there. 2) Those that you describe as having milder forms of disability, such as carpel tunnel, are in that unfortunate no-man’s land. They do not enjoy all of the advantages of being in the majority/able-bodied culture, nor are they able to enjoy all of the benefits of crip culture. They are a bit in the place of say, mixed race people are today, or more likely where they were 20 or 30 years ago. It is an unfortunate position that, should the state of disability become understood as normal human experience, would help their situation greatly. They don’t identify as disabled, they aren’t usually accepted (by the courts or employers) as disabled and thus entitled to reasonable accommodations, and they can’t compete (at least in the specific disability related areas without accommodations) with the able-bodied. Being in the sort of grey area of disability really sucks. I’ve been there. Believe me, it is its own interesting and confusing conundrum that sometimes puts the person in a worse position than being able-bodied or (what is considered as being) disabled in the traditional sense.

  64. 65
    Sailorman says:

    On a personal level, I’m not buying the concept that I can’t imagine what it would be like, and am just projecting. I don’t have a major disability. But i’m an adult, and over my life I have certainly acquired a variety of more minor impairments. You know what? They suck. I have a wonderful life in general, and if you asked the (ridiculous) question of whether I would change my life, lose my wife and kids, etc, just so that I could have better knees or hearing–well, of course not. But if you could magically take me back to my 18 year old body and keep my life, I’d be first in line.

    So it seems insulting to claim that I can’t imagine what it would be like to acquire a more major disability. i can imagine perfectly well: I would really, really hate it. I would also do everything I could to get past it, just as I have with a variety of other things in my life (physical and otherwise) because I would generally prefer not to spend the rest of my life in a state of despair. And I would probably succeed, because I am human.

    Everyone is entitled to be happy in their own skin. Everyone is entitled to their own worldview. Outside of a thread which was specifically created to discuss these matters, I would not be having this discussion at all: I would rather that more people in the world were happy, and I have zero interest in convincing anyone else not to be happy.

    But as cripchick noted, she likes to say

    we enjoy so many pleasures that you will never understand or even experience.

    and I feel the same way about my own life. I like who I am; I feel like it would be a loss to change that.

    I can–and will–certainly attempt to change my language and presentation as to avoid insult or acrimony. There is a shitload of disability bias in the country, and I do not think it is a good thing at all. It certainly is reasonable for people to avoid insulting others, as best as they can. I find these threads helpful in pointing out the ways that I, and others like me, can inadvertently cause offense.

    However, if you’re asking me to change my underlying beliefs so that I think differently, that’s a different animal. It’s one thing not to use “cut off at the knees” as an expression; it’s another thing entirely to believe that having my legs cut off at the knees would be perfectly fine if only society was more supportive.

  65. 66
    Bjartmarr says:

    Unless I’ve read between the lines wrong, I don’t think anybody’s saying that Sailor isn’t the best person to determine what life would be like for him if he were to become disabled. Rather, what I’m hearing is that everybody gets to make that prediction for themselves personally, but the overall determination of whether it is, in general, a bad thing or not such a bad thing is best made by those who have experienced it.

    So Sailor is free to feel like his becoming disabled would be a loss for him, but it would be polite (and more accurate) to defer to the experts when making that determination for society at large.

    As long as we’re trotting out tortured analogies: sushi. Before Sailor tries it, he can think, “Yuck, raw fish, I’m going to hate that”. And he’s clearly the person best qualified to make that assessment — perhaps incorrectly, but anybody else who tries to make that assessment for him (no matter how much of an expert they are) is even more likely to be incorrect. But when we are trying to decide what kind of restaurant to put in the food court at the mall, we should defer to people who have actually tasted the food.

    So, uh, is that reasonably close?

    I’m still not convinced that we don’t have a sampling error here. Is it possible that Leora and Kay and the other folks who have posted here tend to meet more people who are happy and active and outgoing, while never meeting those whose disabilities make them unhappy and isolated? (Have you spoken with people with disabilities in other countries?) But, lacking any data of my own, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt until such data shows up.

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