The language around disability

[CW: Ableist language examples & hate crime mentioned.]

It was UK Disability History month between November and December, which I missed publishing this in time for due to being busy on top of struggling with the winter mind worms.

The theme for 2016 was language. Now I know what you’re thinking. ‘There’s more important things than language – like how people are treated’. Or maybe ‘Oh god, here goes another FUN rant about ableism & albeist slurs…’ You folks love it really – it’s part of my charm 😉

Well I promise I’m going to try to NOT make this sound like a lecture and I’ll keep it solutions focused. I’ll explain a bit about why I think language is important and then point towards some small language changes that’ll enable you to talk about disability in a more empowering way for all of us. So guilt trips here about past language slips ups as we’ve all been there and I for one have had less than perfect language and behaviour – and I’m still learning.

So my first point is language is part of how we’re treated. When ableist language is used in an act of hate crime, it is the treatment itself or forms part of the treatment. When ableist things are said as a reflection of held beliefs as part of discrimination at work, it’s very much part of how we’re treated. It’s a false distinction to separate actions and language in this context.  If anything, language is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to societal attitudes and behaviour towards disability.

Scope’s (disability charity) recently published hate crime stats make grim reading. However they paint a picture of the abuse disabled people have to face regularly, that is part of their lived experience. So language does matter – because it affects disabled people – and feeds in to the narrative that their conditions are a negative thing. If I think about some of the terms still used frequently, like ‘retard / tard’, ‘lame’, ‘Scitz’, ‘flid’ etc including people actually doing impressions of disabled people whilst calling each other these things… it’s still rife. Not only are we using words associated with disability to basically mean ‘shit, crap, ignorant etc’ but I always think about disabled people hearing those things said in a flippant way when they’re lived experience is those words being used to insult them.

On a personal note, which I know is going to get scoffs of ‘I’m being ridiculous’ – I hate people using these words ‘bonkers, manic, crazy, mental, psycho…’ etc. What you mean is ‘irrational, illogical, ignorant, hectic/busy’. Or saying ‘I’m a bit OCD’. I get even more baffled and frustrated when social justice organisations use them in public communications, it makes me want to face palm!

Before you get annoyed, I’d like to point out it will mean a *tiny* bit of effort on your behalf to reach a bit further into the corners of your vocabulary and find a more accurate phrase. Use online resources if you’re stuck (like the awesome one by Autistic Hoya here) that provide alternatives to ableist language. In doing so, you’ll help disabled people feel less othered in a world that is often so othering. Is it that much of a big ask? I love the idea your response now may be ‘it’s PC gone MAD’ Ah irony, my old friend.

I think I should point out here that I’m not perfect. Some of my friends and I have discussed how the jokes we’ve made in the past are problematic AF. Becoming an intersectional feminist (one who recognises how the intersections of sexuality, gender, class, race, disability etc impact us in the same structural way being female or femme presenting does) has made me question this behaviour of mine & try to stop it. I still slip up sometimes and my only comfort is I’m trying. My point is that this negative language (which demonstrates attitude) is so heavily ingrained in us that it’s hard to tear away from. No one has to be perfect at it, but we can think about it a bit more and try and harder in the spirit of being more compassionate beings.

Language has such power. Especially emotive language. I can point towards the recent events of Brexit and Trump being elected to demonstrate how, when backed with little or no fact or evidence, someone can just say a load of emotive things and will people to think a certain way. So how can we deny our language around disability doesn’t matter?

(P.S. This is a blog topic so I’ve kept it brief. However as I’ve said in the past this subject obviously isn’t more important than other disability issues like cuts to PIP & ESA.)

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