Monday, August 10, 2009

on language that marginalizes (part one of possibly-more-than-one)

One of the things I've been thinking about recently is the use of the word "lame" as a derogatory adjective.  Which gives me an excuse to link to a blogpost I read a while back -- "Why Not to Use the Word Lame: I Think I’m Starting to Get It" [Posted by Mandolin | June 16th, 2009]

Let’s start with that point from earlier that it DOES suck — in this society — not to have the same freedom of movement an abled person. (Although of course, here, we’re already starting in with ableist assumptions, because a big portion of the reason it sucks is because society is set up for people with bodies we consider normal.) OK, so let’s rephrase. Having functional legs is useful. Therefore, the state of having legs which are not as functional as other legs is not as nice as the state of having normally functional legs. (Again, there’s some ableism around the concept of normal, but moving on.)

But even accepting that impairment to mobility is itself a sucky thing, MAYBE DISABLED PEOPLE DO NOT APPRECIATE BEING THE CULTURAL GO-TO FOR THINGS THAT SUCK.
The first commenter (Lexie) points out:
You are on the right track, but here is the thing about saying something like “the logic of having a mobility impairment totally sucks is self-evident.”

It’s not, really. People with disabilities most of the time do not go around saying, God! It sucks so bad that my legs don’t work! They are just who they are, a whole person with varying characteristics, some of which society has labeled as a disability.

Take being gay, for example. One could argue, and some have, that this is a form of disability and that it sucks. Gay people inherently have things to deal with, like fertility issues or the fact that they have to find different ways to socialize within a smaller range of people (the arguable 10% of the population that is gay). Or, to get really technical and TMI about it, they might have to find different ways to be intimate with each other. Doesn’t this inherently suck? Isn’t it logical to think that being gay is inherently inferior to being straight? Isn’t it easier to be straight? And that isn’t even counting the artificial attitudinal barriers of being gay. They can’t marry, or get on each others health insurance plan, or adopt as easily as straight people. It must suck so bad to be gay! Its logical that gay must mean sucky!


Well, no. What LGBT people have done exceptionally well (and are still working on) is to show people that their lifestyle and sexuality is on a continuum of normal. That gender does not have to be binary and people should be able to express gender in a way that feels comfortable for them and that is a normal part of the human condition. They are not mentally ill, or some kinds of freaks who have a horrible condition, they just are who they are…humans.

So, people with disabilities are the same way. The body comes in all shapes, sizes and conditions and all are part of the normal condition of human existence. Disability is a normal part of life. Do some things suck about a specific disability? Sure. Just like it must suck for LGBT people who want to have children and can’t go about it as easily or as cheaply as heterosexual couples can. Just like everyone on the planet has something about themselves that they can’t control that sucks. (Run faster, be better at math, sing better, not be bald, whatever.) It goes beyond saying that logically, being lame sucks but we shouldn’t hurt disabled people’s feelings by using that word. It goes to trying to get people to stop singling out one physical (or mental) aspect of ourselves as being sucky and having that thing define who we are–our entire life experience. To us, whatever characteristic we have that makes us disabled is just a part of our whole selves, and most of us are quite fond of our whole selves, thankyouverymuch. Many people will tell you that being disabled has given them experiences and opportunities that they wouldn’t exchange for anything.

In my case, my PC word peeve is “blind”. (I’m deaf blind) I’m not talking about the word “blind” itself. I’m fine with people calling me blind and prefer it to all the many euphemisms people come up with like “sight impaired” or whatnot. I hate it when blind (or deaf for that matter) is used in place of the words unknowing or stupid. i.e. She was blind to the fact that her use of the word “lame” was offensive. Blind people actually do not walk around in the dark completely unaware of what is going on around them. We actually know stuff. My point is, I think it is a matter of looking at the word (lame, blind) and really understanding what you are using that word to mean (sucky, stupid). Is that a fair use of the word? Does it really represent the people that are usually defined by that word? If not, maybe it is time to think of some better, more fitting words to describe things.
Ableism is something I really don't think about much, which is a problem.  (This also connects to conversations my best friend and and I were having recently about church accessibility -- ASL interpreters, gluten-free communion bread, stair alternatives, bathrooms, etc. -- which I need to make a separate post about.)

More food for thought (via coffeeandink's ableism tag): jesse_the_k's "(Color) Blindness as Metaphor to Racism"

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