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Gordon's D-Zone Arcive (2006-2014)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Killing me softly

I’ve been rather unwell lately, which means that I broke my resolution to keep this blog flowing. However, I will make it up to you, dear readers, by presenting you this post. This time round, I will be dealing with the relationship between language and disability.

The topic of language and disability has fascinated me both as a dabbling writer, and as a disabled person. The fact is that we sometimes unknowingly resort to words and phrases that can be considered to be disablist. To illustrate this, I tried to get a couple of disabling terms and use them to write a disablist paragraph. Here it is:

Dear Editor,
I wish to state my dissatisfaction with the way the development board blindly went ahead with its plans. This, in spite of our protests which appear to have fallen on deaf ears. As pointed out in our complaints, this development will serve to further paralyze traffic. I believe that the authorities should see that the project is stopped. I often wonder whether we are being led by feeble minded decision makers.

As you can read from the letter, I can be as disablist as the non-disabled person next door. But really, what you should notice is that language often contains words and phrases that can be disabling or offer us a less than positive image of people who have impairments. Of course, we cannot go to the extreme of banning all words in the English language that cause us the slightest offense. Indeed, the metaphoric uses of impairments to convey particular situations or states of mind tend to enrich the ways in which we express our thoughts. The problem is that most of the times impairment appears in a sentence, a negative quality is usually being invoked.

All the same, the use of disablist language will take long to change. However, this does not mean that change is impossible to achieve. A good example is the decline in the use of racist terms such as ‘nigger’ between the 1960s and 1970s. On the other hand, this exposes another issue related to books written in the past where such terms were acceptable and in the context of historical non-fiction/fiction.

What these two categories have in common is the issue of authenticity. Can you, for example, look through Mark Twain and sift out any racist terms in the new version? Can you write a historical account or work of fiction by avoiding the use of the words people of the time were comfortable with? That is a hard one to solve but I believe that in these cases, an authentic representation of history and how contemporary authors actually wrote is essential – provided that the reader can place the work in its own context or time. Imagine writing an account of the holocaust and excluding the words adopted by the Nazi propaganda machine. It would dilute the horrific events by a significant degree since the Nazi party’s war against its opposition was to dehumanise opponents and uphold the 3rd Reich through words and euphemism.

Indeed, at the time when disabled people were being gassed – followed by Jews, political opponents, homosexuals, etc – language was being used as a weapon of terror and power. Disabled people were ‘lives not living’, Jews ‘stole German jobs , political opponents were traitors, homosexuals were ‘impure’ and so on. The symbolic violence of words turned to real violence. This is the peril of being unaware of the impact disablist language can have – you need to distinguish between the metaphor and the person. And, at times, some words should be avoided altogether (such as feebl minded) because they are too toxic.

Yet, it’s not always that easy for some people to make a distinction between words and people. For example, I remember a few days ago hearing a monk on the radio asking his radio audience – do you want to live like the blind man who always blames others for his mistakes, and who believes he has all the answers? Yes, it was last month. Hopefully, he was referring to spiritual ‘blindness’ but it wasn’t clear if he was condemning sinners or blind people – or blind sinners.

Of course, going back to the disablist letter, I could have expressed the same thoughts without resorting to disablist language, like so:

Dear Editor,
I wish to state my dissatisfaction with the way the development board stubbornly went ahead with its plans. This, in spite of our protests which appear to have been ignored. As pointed out in our complaints, this development will serve to further congest traffic in our streets. I believe that the authorities should see that the project is stopped. I often wonder whether we are being led by incompetent decision makers.

So, there seems to be an alternative. Insulting in the right way...

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