Language and disability - Livre d'Or

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Language and disability
Wednesday, 09 March 2016 at 11:06 am

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There is quite a lot of controversy about what language is appropriate to use for discussing disability. In terms of talking about people, the obviously polite and ethical thing to do is to refer to people using the terms they prefer, and not impose other ones on anyone for any reason. But I'm quite often talking generically, or talking about a stranger whose preferences I don't know. Currently my default is to say people with disabilities and related language, except when I know that a particular individual dislikes this "person-first language". My default is the other way round for a few specific conditions where I know that person-first language is generally unpopular in activist communities, so I'll say autistic people and D/deaf people, not *people with autism or *people with hearing loss.

However, I'm seeing increasing pushback from disabled activists against person-first language, and I'm thinking it's maybe time to switch my default unless I know that a particular individual prefers person-first. Note I'm not considering this in response to obviously rubbish criticisms of person-first language; "it's politically correct" is not a reason to reject person-first language, I would far rather be politically correct than be the kind of jerk who thinks that calling people by terms they find insulting is taking a brave stand for free speech. "It's all too complicated and you can't win" is also a reason that holds no weight with me, it's my responsibility as an abled person to go out and learn what language is appropriate, and yes, that changes as people's conceptions of their identities shift, and it's different in different contexts, but that's not something for me to whine about. But when actual disabled people are saying that they don't like person-first language, that they find it patronizing or insulting, that's a reason to change, despite carefully cultivating the habit over many years because I believed it was respectful.

One of the reasons that's often given why one shouldn't use person-first language is that it's an American, not a European convention, and that it's based in the medical model of disability. If I'm talking about a person with a disability, it sounds like I'm saying that they're a person who has this unfortunate thing wrong with them. Rather than someone who may strongly identify with their condition and as disabled in general, and someone who is disadvantaged, disabled, by a society that values normative bodies at the expense of everybody else, which is what social-model following disability activists would prefer me to convey. This doesn't ring true to me because I first learned about person-first language from people who are definitely British and definitely passionately committed to the social model of disability and to disability rights activism, the same people who taught me the principle / slogan nothing about us without us. But I don't want to say, you, disabled person, are wrong and I know better because I have some peripheral association with the mainly academic bits of the disability community.

So I was very interested to see this blog post by Andrew Hickey: On person-first and disability-first language. In particular, Hickey says
And an important thing to note is that person-first language was drilled into everyone in mental health services, disability services and so on, at least in the UK and I believe elsewhere, from about 1990ish onwards.
And that makes more sense of why I think person-first language is respectful but many of my disabled / neurodivergent etc friends and activists on the internet don't think so. I think what happened is that historically, activists, very much including in the UK, pushed for person-first language, and they were successful, such that it was adopted by, well, people who provide medical and caring services for PWD. So I can see how this came to be associated with the medical model; in fact, many service providers are committed to the social model (it's certainly what we're teaching the medical students, for example), but since in fact their role WRT disabled people is to provide care and assistance, it's easy to see how their language gets associated with medicalization and the cure narrative and so on, and how it centres the care providers rather than the disabled people themselves.

So it's possible that the story that person-first language means medical model is a bit of a myth, but in lots of ways that doesn't matter. It's perfectly reasonable for people to decide how they want to be described, and for that to vary in different times and situations and so on. "I/we prefer disability-first language" is a sufficient reason all by itself. But people feel like they have to have a justification to ask abled people to change our language, leading to the emergence of folk etymologies about why person-first language is insulting. It's a similar process with handicapped, which at some points in history was the polite, PC term for what we would now call disabled. Many people now believe that handicapped comes from "cap-in-hand" and refers to disabled people asking for charity and handouts. That's factually not true, that was never the etymology, and the term was chosen in an attempt to be respectful by analogy with sports handicapping – you don't think worse of a jockey or a golfer with a higher handicap than their competitors. But lots of people believe it, and what is true is that it's generally a disrespectful way to refer to PWD nowadays. Basically because it's associated with an era where disabled people were segregated away from society and that might have been done with good intentions initially but segregation and institutionalization inevitably lead to cruelty and abuse.

And yes, it is a bit of a euphemism treadmill. New terms are coined by activists, and they are taken up initially by people who are trying to support disabled folk, and eventually by pretty much everybody, but if underlying attitudes don't change, the new term becomes an insult in its own right. But that's not a problem with the activists coining the terms in the first place, and it's not a reason to insist on language which is now outdated and considered offensive.

Hickey's post is really nuanced, and has provoked some really great discussion in the comments about the subtleties of both disability-first language and the cure narrative in general. It's also provoked an absolutely stereotypical angry abled guy complaining about he feels alienated and intimidated by all the infighting over terminology and he'd rather stay away from communities of disabled people altogether because he's scared of offending people. I'm trying very hard not to be that guy. It's complicated not because disabled people are being deliberately mean and excluding us TABs, or because they're having pointless petty fights about details that don't matter, it's complicated because this stuff actually is complicated and there isn't one straightforward answer.

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