As a member of the disability rights advocates community I particularly despise the term “people with disability” or even worst “person with disability.” And today my understanding of that loathing was brought to a whole new level.
One of my favorite t-shirts is the black one that says: “I’d rather be grammatically correct” on the front. And suddenly that t-shirt made so much more sense to me. I have always loved it because of my love of language and my general dislike of all that is politically correct. I have always had an idea that PC language and behavior covered over some innate fear of facing that which one tried to talk about with this convoluted sort of language.
Political correctness was just one of those things that I would scoff at and laugh about when people went to great lengths not to be offensive; when they would end up in some sort of linguistic entanglement that by no means made conversation easier or more fluid when all parties involved knew it was only done to avoid some term that everybody was thinking anyway.
The reason for all these thoughts was that I was reading an article (in Danish) by Don Kulick, professor of anthropology at University of Chicago. Don Kulick has done some research in Denmark and Sweden and found out that people in Denmark has no respect for ‘”people with disabilities” because we would never use terms like “people with disability.” Instead a word like (oh horror!) spastic is used quite frequently in Denmark. The article is interesting in itself. It’s about how despite this medieval practice of language Danes have a more liberal approach to sex and sexuality amongst cripples than they do in Sweden. And he is puzzled by how the Swedes, who apparently are so progressive when it comes to treating ‘people with disability’ with respect and correct language use, can be so incredibly lacking in their treatment of their disabled population.
It is my view that politically correct language is another way of distancing oneself from those one is trying to protect with the PC language. In other words, the language itself is what creates a distance between the speaker and the subject that is being spoken about.
As the recipient of that sort of language I am reminded that I am different. I am one of ‘them’. We all know when politically correct people use terms like “He is so special” what they really mean is “He’s a f***ing freak” and dare not say it. And the same goes for “people with disability.” To me it’s degrading and inappropriate. When I see it I feel exposed and put on display, not embraced and understood.
It is my firm belief that the use of politically correct language is a way of showing the fear that surrounds disability as a concept. Disabled people are not respected and understood as what they are, that leads to disabled people not acknowledging themselves as disabled who in turn makes them take on a victim role that requires others to speak of them in those PC terms. If we look at another group in society that has turned their disadvantage about face, we will also see a totally different use of language.
The gay community has absorbed some formerly negative terms, like dyke, queen and fairy, and made them part of our vocabulary, these terms are being used by many gays and lesbians as well as many progressive people in a totally non-offensive way. In Danish the vernacular term for gay, bøsse, is a former negatively laden word but because of it being fully embraced by the subculture of homosexuals it is now the official term for homosexuals. Just like the term nigger is being used by the black community at large, and I would not be surprised if that too could turn around and become a colloquial term someday – that, however, would require that we are not afraid of our own shadow.
In Danish we sometimes use a term that is easiest translated into ‘courtesy inframmation,’ it means that we go to such lengths in our attempt to be PC that it is likened to a disease. Unfortunately this disease is highly contagious as well as dangerous.
The second reason why I disagree with Don Kulick is his insistence on the so-called ‘person first’ approach. I can appreciate the idea of recognizing the person instead of the disability. But it also creates a discrepancy between me and certain condition of life that is totally intricate to me, namely my disability. It is true that I am not my disability, but my disability is not some curse that has been bestowed upon me (sorry folks, I do not possess the mental capacity to believe in some vengeful god that has done this to me) and that is what those people who use the term “people with disability” make it sound like.
Just like my gay friends proudly say “I am gay,” I reserve the right to proudly say “I’m disabled’ or even better “I’m a cripple.” I don’t seem to ever remember anyone mentioning a “person with homosexuality” instead of the (totally correct, albeit apparently non-PC) term “gay,” so why do I have to put up with that sort of convoluted language that nobody truly believes in but only uses in order to indulge some warped sense of piety and correctness.
So when Don Kulick talks about ‘”people with disabilities” he is practicing a subtle but all the more insipid form of ableism that I am certain he had absolutely no intention of. Never the less that is the only way I am able to read it. And unfortunately it frames the way many disabled people think about themselves and in that regard it add to the internalized ableism that is seen in so many disabled people where it leads to self-loathing.
By insisting on using “people with disability” Don Kulick is subconsciously creating a distance between himself and me (and everyone else with a disability.) That is his right as a member of a free society; though I highly doubt it is his intention to do so. But what I really balk at is the fact that he tries to distance me from my disability. That borders on an unpardonable sin – again, I don’t believe in any such thing but still… I don’t happen to have a disability. I am a cripple, a gimp, a freak; I am a lame, deformed wonk that wear it with pride. My gimpishness is a full and integral part of who I am. Something I live to its fullest extent and embrace completely. I feel it every day and expose it for everyone to look at and ask questions about – if they dare. And when I put citation marks around the term “people with disability” it is a deliberate attempt to distance myself from a term that stigmatizes me and exhibits my otherness, both from people around me and from what I intrinsically am – a cripple.
So next time I don my ‘I’d rather be grammatically correct’ t-shirt I will be wearing it proudly. I finally have grasped the difference between disability rights advocates and “people with disability” and I thank the forces that be that I am the former rather than the latter.