Let’s be real: There are a lot of no good, terrible, very bad people in positions of political and social power right now, and we have an imperative to criticise them. Particularly when it comes to actions that reinforce social inequality. When people do things that are vile, we should be able to say so. But we also need to use our words carefully, because when people reinforce injustice in the name of condemning it, that’s a bad look. And it’s usually disablist language in particular that’s the culprit here.
There’s a lot of discussion swirling around language and how people use it, and I’ve written about this a lot so I don’t want to go into a lengthy tangent, but basically, if you are using language that refers to disabled people or disability to describe something or someone as bad, you are engaging in disablism. You are using disability as a shorthand for ‘bad,’ reinforcing hateful social attitudes about disabled people. This includes clinical terms, general common shorthand, former clinical terms, and slurs — lame, crippled, crazy, insane, mongoloid, retarded, schizophrenic, and many, many more.
If you find yourself rushing up in defense, think about this: What do you mean when you use these words? What are you trying to convey? If it’s ‘this is a bad thing,’ how do you think it makes people who use those words to describe themselves, who are described that way, have been described that way, feel? What kind of message do you think it sends to society? This isn’t about ‘language police’ or saying people can’t use certain words, but it is an attempt at drawing out a discussion and encouraging people to use new, better, more accurate, less hurtful words.
I often see disability language used around public figures that people dislike to suggest that they are: Bad, awful, ill-equipped for their jobs, unqualified, frightening, absurd, ominous, menacing, dreadful, terrible, dangerous, scary, evil, authoritarian, disturbing, erratic, unpredictable, or confusing, among many other things. Instead of using those actual descriptive words, though, people say that a politician is a ‘psychopath,’ that an actor they dislike is ‘crazy,’ that a press release is ‘insane.’ None of those terms really provide me with very much information about the situation at hand, but they tell me a lot about you.
If you have to resort to using -isms to criticise someone, you really need to check yourself. Is that the best you’ve got? Is that the most you want to engage with this issue? You think your point of view is unique and important and should be heard, and all you’ve got is a handful of recycled slurs? You’re entrenching anti-disability attitudes, and you’re also making it harder to have a useful conversation about this issue — for example, ‘this press release is practically illiterate and totally confusing’ gives me a much better idea of what you mean and how to approach a conversation about it.
I get it. These terms are quick and easy and sloppy and convenient, you’re thinking in 140 characters, people know what you mean. And you’re right, they do. Because this society has so thoroughly internalised the notion that ‘disability is bad’ that using disablist language to discuss things that are bad is a universally recognised shorthand. Everyone from a little kid in the schoolyard to a senator on the floor understands what you mean because we are taught this from a very early age.
What we are not taught is that we can and should be better than this. That words matter. That the way we use our words, and the level of precision we obtain when discussing issues, is really important. I want people to use clear, descriptive, evocative language not because I want to police what they can and can’t say, but because I want to understand them. I want to dig a level deeper. I want to know more, in-depth, about the issue they are talking about. ‘This legislation is dangerous’ means much more to me than ‘this legislation is crazy.’
And there’s something else I need to discuss here too, something Kim Sauder has noted and discussed at length, and it revolves very specifically around Donald Trump. Throughout the campaign, many people pointed to the video of Trump mocking the New York Times’ Serge Kovaleski with spastic, twitching hand movements meant to mimic Kovaleski’s impairment. They questioned how anyone could win an election after that, as though mocking ‘the disabled reporter,’ as Kovaleski came to be known, was a dealbreaker. They didn’t talk about any of Trump’s terrible disability policy — or the incredible disability representation on the Democratic side — just this brief news clip. Kovaleski himself doesn’t actually identify as disabled, so concerntrolling liberals were using him as a rhetorical pawn when they white knighted for disability, and it was gross.
And now, I am seeing many of those same liberals using disablist, and disabling, language to describe the president and his ilk. Apparently it’s not okay for Trump to engage in disablism, but it’s perfectly fine for his opponents to leverage it in an attempt to bring him down. I’m sorry, but I fail to see how what’s good for the goose is good for the gander here. It either is or isn’t okay to classify disability as ‘bad’ and use the framework of disability to make fun of something. This is not a game of pick and choose.
Disability has been systematically erased for society, including alleged liberal and social justice spaces. Language like this helps reinforce that divide, making it much, much harder for us to fight for our place in the world.
Image: RomanT[a]ism, Pierre, Flickr