Disability, Language

Language and Intent, Part 3 of 3: The Quiet Power of Inclusive Language

Though I fancy myself a committed Jew, I’m not always well behaved at services.  In fact, some friends would say that I’m downright snarky.  The historical targets of my snark are interpretive English readings that I find ridiculous, or liturgical choices that seem to me to be divorced from any coherent theory of prayer.  I know, I’m a snob, I should do better.

Lately, however, I’ve been snarking about something new.

By way of background, Judaism is a religion of choreography, a lot of standing and sitting, and so many times in a service you will be asked to please rise or told that you may be seated.

For most of my life, I’ve ignored this.  Jewish law expressly understands that those of us that cannot stand do not have to, and it just wasn’t a big issue.  Lately, provided that I’m in a service where the low mutter between congregants is standard, I will often mutter to a friend something to the effect of “I decline” or “I choose not to” and when exhorted to be seated, I will point out that I already am.

Frankly, this habit surprises even me.  I’m nearly 33 years old and I didn’t make this juvenile joke very often when I was 10.  I started to think about why.

In just a few synagogues where I have been, the exhortation has been changed to “please rise if you are able.”  When I first heard this, I thought it a non sequitur.  It was a restatement of an idea so obvious that I thought that it simply need not be said.

My wheelchair is self-evident.  Even for people whose mobility impairment is not self-evident, unless the Rabbi or service leader were to be replaced with Kanye West, I don’t think that anyone is going to take someone attending the service to task for failure to rise.  There is no discriminatory practice needing to be fought.

And yet, this little change was having an effect on me.  The simple linguistic acknowledgment that I, and people like me, existed in the congregation, demonstrated by a simple word choice, meant something to me.  I’ve come to realize that my snark was my subconscious reaction to feeling linguistically excluded after being linguistically included.  These service leaders had raised the bar of my expectation.

In the first piece of the series, I wrote about the unconsidered intent of poorly chosen language.  In yesterday’s piece, I wrote about the meaninglessness of even the most proper language if divorced from meaningful intent.  The little change I have described above points to the incredible power of intentional language.

As I already said, I’ve known since early childhood that Jewish law did not require me to stand up.  The people adding a qualifier, therefore, have done nothing to change my behavior (I couldn’t stand up if I wanted to) and did not even assuage a nonexistent guilt.  What they changed was the subtle societal message that the choreographers of our services and framers of our instructions just weren’t thinking about people like me.  They taught me that at least one, the speaker at that moment, had thought of me, and framed his or her words accordingly.

This felt good.  I’m 33, and that had my fair share of accolade and friendship, and yet this four word acknowledgment of my existence spoke to me at a level that I didn’t even realize, and raised my expectations.

This, then, is the message with which I would end this series.  Poorly chosen language is hurtful because it conveys negative associations, or at best a lack of thought, and should be avoided.  Formulaic language, is better than actively negative language, but is pretty meaningless without intent, and can be trumped by even the wrong language with the right intent by those who just don’t know the formula.

The most powerful language, however, is that which conveys a respect and positive intent to include.  If there’s one prescription I can give, it’s to choose your language around disability carefully.  Not carefully in order to ensure knowledge of the latest buzzword, about which I could care less, but carefully to convey the attitude of inclusion, respect and love that I know that my readers all carry and their hearts.

As long as that is the principle, from my perspective, you can’t go wrong, because your language will find a way to convey your intent.  And, if you routinely convey that intent, you may raise the bar for everyone, even me.

Disability, Language

Language and Intent, Part 2 of 3: The Difference between Person First Language and Putting the Person First

To my most avid readers: you will recognize this as primarily a reprint of an archival post on the blog.  I have reworked it slightly to fit into this series, and also assume that, since it was posted as part of my launch collection, and never had its own day, it is new content for the vast majority of readers.  Enjoy!

I was born handicapped.  Sometime in my early childhood I was briefly physically challenged and by middle school I was disabled.  I am now a person with a disability.  Similarly, I have progressed from wheelchair-bound, to in a wheelchair, to a chair user.  It may surprise you to find that the actual nature of my physical condition is unchanging, and that medically, my charts have said pretty much the same thing since 1981.  Medical science generally only changes names if it signifies a greater change.

This is something that I think we have lost in the progression of language around disability.  Ideally meant to focus on my personhood, the phrase “person with a disability” really only serves to tell me that I am dealing with someone who is both educated, and hip to the latest lingo.  It is singularly unable to tell me whether I am viewed as a person.

Now it is true.  It can be jarring to hear disabled or handicapped out of the mouth of someone that ought to know better.  Are they so indifferent that they did not bother to learn the latest words?  Yet, maybe they just did not know.  As I pointed out in some length in part one of this series, sometimes indifference tells its own story.

And yet, unlike the lack of reflection that I posited yesterday, focused as it was upon words the plain meaning of which is offensive, a failure to use “person first” language strikes me as more likely to be a function a deficit in inside knowledge rather than a deficit in reflection, especially since it is far from intuitive.

I cannot tell you how many times well-meaning individuals have been mortified upon learning that they no longer have the latest term.  But, unless you are a journalist or a Member of Congress, it is not like there is anyone teaching you this stuff.  And strident corrections seem more likely to shame them to teach.

I feel that there are other ways, mostly to do with action, where I can find out if someone sees me first as a person.

How did they treat me?  Will they work with me?  Do they seek my advice and my guidance in areas where I have experience or expertise?  Will they joke with me, laugh with me, hoist a drink with me?  Will they praise me only when I do something legitimately praiseworthy and call me out when I am insensitive or acting the fool?  These folks I now see me as a person first.

I know it even if English is not their first language and they have used the archaic word crippled, or have asked, in the way one sees with Israelis, “what happened to you?”  It is important to put a person first, but I will take the right actions over the latest words any day of the week.  Like the medical chart, I am only interested in the linguistic change if it signifies a true change in action.

Yesterday I argued that a lack of choice in language can demonstrate hidden attitudes and demonstrate a benignly ablest intent.  Today, I argue that one can use exactly appropriate language, and it can demonstrate nothing more than good media training.

To those who would champion person first language, I ask you, how certain are you that the person is first?

Disability, Language

Language and Intent, Part 1 of 3: Unintentional Messages

Just a second.  I’ll be a minute.

It’s amazing how often I hear these phrases, and I’m sure you do to, and I can’t remember one instance where the delay was actually a second, or minute.

It’s awesome.  It will change your life.  We hear statements like this so often that we don’t even really have words to appropriately express true life change and awe.

In the current American idiom, many expressions are fairly well divorced from their original roots, or their literal meanings.  I’m fairly certain that this is the normal progression of the English language, and one might think me a picker of nits (no longer referring to the eggs of lice) for mentioning it.

And yet, for loaded words, for particular expressions, that very forgetfulness, or unwitting ignorance, can become an issue of division and hurt.

He’s crazy.  She is a moron.  Virtually generic insults on the playground, and yet with such explosive potential.

Unpacking for a moment, we are reminded that crazy was and sometimes remains a derisive term for people with certain psychiatric disabilities, and moron was one of the disturbing terms used to lump, label, and dehumanize people with intellectual disabilities in an earlier era.

These loaded terms, used without intent in societal discourse, can be deeply offensive to people with disabilities, both because of their history and because of the notion that a label of a particular disability should be an insult.

My goal here is not to explore this phenomenon in-depth, because the idea is fairly simple, or to provide a primer about it, though I will direct you to an excellent list of offensive terms with a certain amount of explanation provided by Lydia Brown, a prominent autistic blogger.  Rather, it is to think about why it is offensive.

I think that part of the reason that such language is troubling is the lack of reflection represented.  Some of the items on Lydia’s list have obscure origins, but one needs no historical background to understand why using mental illness or intellectual disability as an insult might be offensive.  It takes little more insight to realize why an expression like “confined to a wheelchair” or “afflicted with cerebral palsy” might be offensive.  I don’t think many who know me would call me a confined and afflicted individual, for all I am a person with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair.

This, then, is my perception of the real problem that results when we take the American tendency to shy away from any sort of meaningful evaluation of our use of language and apply it to terms related to disability.  The very practice represents a lack of reflection on the underlying assumptions in the phrases.

Even this would probably not matter if disability discrimination were a relic of ancient history.  It is moderately interesting to find out that a cultural idiom results from a conflict that has been over for hundreds of years.

The problem is that the attitudes reflected in these expressions, even if not actively held by the speaker, are active in our society today and do great harm.  We still stigmatize the mentally ill and those with intellectual disabilities, and many who do not know me would indeed pass me on the street and presume me to be confined and afflicted, and we must battle those presumptions with mindfulness.

Tomorrow, in part two of this series, I will substantially reprint my earlier piece on person first language, and the importance of the attitude of the Speaker over particular phrases used.  Today I ask you to hold on to the idea that when the substance represents a lack of mindfulness of ongoing discrimination still suffered by a population, the inattentive phraseology can become a part of intent.

Think about it, read Lydia’s list, and think about the preconceptions that may be consciously or unconsciously conveyed in our word choices.  Then, let’s change our thoughts by changing our words.