Cuteifying Disability

Cuteification of disability was once championed and pretty widely used, to get people to be more accepting of people with disabilities and to enlarge ideas about accommodation and needs. We aren’t disabled, we’re ‘special needs.’ We aren’t handicapped, we’re ‘handicapable.’ Etc. But I think it’s time to move beyond cuteification of disability when it comes to neutral language used to refer to disability in general, because it has a chilling effect when it comes to talking about disability; cuteification is associated with ‘childishness’ and as a result it tends to create the idea that children are the only disabled people (or the only ones worth caring about) and it contributes to the idea that it’s acceptable to talk down to and patronise people with disabilities of all ages, because we’re cute and defanged and nonthreatening.

There’s a piece of jargon very popular in the disability community: Spoons. For those not familiar, here’s a rundown on the spoon theory, which was originally used specifically in the context of chronic illness and physical disabilities, and was later expanded as more people with disabilities started using it. Thus you have people saying things like ‘I’m out of spoons’ or ‘this takes too many spoons.’

And I think, for people who find this model useful, and who like the term, it’s fantastic. One thing the spoon theory does is create a common language of disability, a code, almost, and it can act as a form of solidarity. But for me personally, it doesn’t work; I tried using it for a little while and just cringed, so I stopped, because to me, it felt too much like cuteification. I was also concerned about the dilution and confusion of the term that developed as more people started using it, and wondered how meaningful it was when it was constantly being repurposed.

I want to say this again, because this is really important, and people often misread me when I talk about language and self-identity: I am not for abolishing the spoon theory, mandating that everyone stop talking about spoons, and demanding that people use the language that suits me. As I say, I think that for people who feel comfortable with and like this model, it’s incredibly useful to have language to describe their lived experiences. But I also think that ‘spoons’ contributes to the ongoing cuteification of disability, and that makes it worth examining. Not throwing out, but talking about.

I say ‘capacity,’ because for me, it’s a more accurate descriptor. Sometimes I lack the capacity to do things; it may be physical, in the sense that I am so fatigued that I cannot do something, or cognitive, where my brain is just not capable of engaging in a given activity. I feel comfortable with ‘capacity’ and I like it, because it’s descriptive and clear. I use it in the way that many (though not all) people use ‘spoons.’ While ‘capacity’ is not specifically coded as disability-related the way ‘spoons’ is, which is a drawback, it also has the benefit of being to the point.

But whatever you call it, not everyone understands what is meant. People with disabilities for the most part get what you mean when you talk about not having capacity for something, and thanks to the prevalence of the spoon theory, ‘spoons’ is pretty well understood, especially online. For nondisabled people, however, these concepts are both alien because they don’t get the underlying issue; it’s not that we are tired and don’t feel like doing something, or do not want to. It’s not that we are trying to get out of doing something or are interested in avoiding responsibility.

It is that we either cannot do something, or can only do it at great personal cost, and we must weigh whether that thing is worth it. For me, for example, having a complex chat with someone about an issue requires a lot of energy, and will often leave me depleted. So I can’t do it every day. But I enjoy doing it, because it’s a beneficial and stimulating and exciting activity. Thus, I budget time and energy to spend time in chat with people I like so we can talk about things, or to spend time at the coffeehouse or in the living room or wherever. When I do, though, I have to weigh the cost and I have to ask myself if dedicating energy to something will take energy away from something else, like a writing project I need to finish.

I have a hard time talking about these things in cute terms because these things are not cute. They are scary and frustrating and intimidating. And for me, the cuteification takes away the importance of what I am talking about, makes it seem less critical, has an effect of diluting what I am trying to say, and the statement I am wanting to make. Cuteification allows people to escape the reality. It’s a way of making disability ‘accessible’ to nondisabled people, by making it compartmentalised and not scary.

Disability can be a scary thing. And I don’t think we do anyone, of any age, any good service by making disability into something cute and flippant and fun for members of the general public. It makes it actively harder for us to talk about accessibility issues and needs, because it allows people to elide the importance of things that are very important.

For people with disabilities talking among ourselves, I think there’s tremendous power in cuteification and reclamation and many other things that allow us to find common ground and talk about shared experiences, to exchange fellowship with each other. I like joking around and having fun with my disabled friends. But when I am talking to nondisabled people, I want to make sure that they understand that disability is serious business. It can be fun, too! But when it comes to things like denial of access, assault of people with disabilities, and other issues, cuteification does not, in my opinion, have a place in the conversation.

Is there a way to find balance? Supporting people who identify with cuteified terms like ‘differently abled‘ and ‘spoons’ and ‘special’ while also not undermining the importance, the critical importance, of talking frankly, openly, and, yes, sometimes aggressively, about disability and disability issues? I think there is, and I think the disability community is already moving in that direction when it comes to conversations about how to refer generally and generically to disability, how to use neutral language, how to create room for all lived experiences and identities. The question is: Are nondisabled people paying attention to these conversations?