On Ableism and Language: An Apology

I have an apology to make.

As much as I try to watch my language, my metaphors, I’m flawed and am a product of the same societal and cultural values that I’m trying so hard to change.  I have stopped using the words stupid, dumb, and idiotic.  I’ve stopped saying so-and-so spazzed out, I’m trying hard to stop calling things crazy as an insult or a joke.  That last one is really ingrained in me, I’m struggling to get it out of my lexicon of phrases.

The last post I wrote leaned heavily on spacial imagery. The title was about “standing in the gap” and at the end, I wrote about continuing to stand in the gap despite my uncertainties, in hopes that we, the human family, could “stand together.”

Sounded good. Until it didn’t. What if a person doesn’t stand? Whether in birth, accident, or disease, some people don’t navigate their everyday spaces by standing. Some lean, some use wheelchairs. Some lay.  For some, the act of standing is exhausting and difficult.

When I write something that uses standing as an act of empowerment, what do my words evoke in someone who doesn’t stand? Maybe there are some people who would read it and not mind, but I’m willing to bet that there are some people who might read that post and be once again reminded that the act of standing is synonymous with power, agency, and gestures of solidarity.  Those qualities aren’t limited to people who stand, however, and that’s the problem.  It really isn’t that different from using a person’s white skin as a metaphor to describe purity, or someone’s ability to see as an act of intuition.

Now before anyone comments about our world being too PC, and is nothing safe, how are we supposed to know every little thing that could be offensive… I think all those arguments are a load of… nonsense. Believe me, I’ve gone through them in my head as well. Try as I might, though, none of them makes it through any rigorous examination.

Trying the “everyone is too politically correct” card ignores that the majority of discussions about -isms have nothing to do with politics while attempting to render the entire discussion moot and arbitrary.  Most of the discussions about offensive language are average people, advocating for more respectful ways of using our words.  In fact, the entire “politically correct” backlash feels more to me that some people simply bristle at being told what to do.  Check it out though—here’s no omnipotent PC god sitting on a throne and drawing arbitrary lines for us.  There’s just people saying, “Please don’t marginalize me with your language.”  Everyone has the freedom to hold onto their prejudicial words, choose to hold on if you will, but let’s not pretend that it is a counter-cultural act of revolution against “the man.”

I do admit that sometimes I’m floored by how much ableist thinking is ingrained in our everyday language.  I admit that I’ve tried to stratify it, accepting some in every day use, just because it is common.  Thing is, overt racism used to be more common, but was it ever ok?  Am I supposed to use my mental tiredness to excuse potentially hurting someone else?  Can I really say it is acceptable to say something that I know may be hurtful, just because I don’t feel like bothering to find another word?

Mostly, I think I could simply do with more accuracy in my writing.  If I don’t like something, I don’t need to resort to some boilerplate insult.  I don’t need to use an insult at all, in fact.  I can accurately explain what I see as problematic.  If I want to use a metaphor, why would I just rehash overused ones?  Wouldn’t I also want to really examine the metaphor, think it through past my initial point, to see if the image continued to serve my needs?

I’m not the arbiter of all that is right and respectful, nor do I know if what I wrote was actually disrespectful to anyone.  I don’t even think I’m close to really understanding how much disability-based prejudice I’ve got in my own thinking.  I’m trying though.  I figure, I can’t go ask people to examine their own crap unless I’m willing to smell my own.

So there it is.  I’m sorry.  I’m picking through my own crap.  Cheers.

My face at the thought of smelling my own poop.  Decidedly frowny.

My face at the thought of smelling my own poop. Decidedly frowny.

ETA: After some discussions in the comments as well as the Facebook page, I’m not really sure where I am at all on the topic of my last post. Maybe the thing that first gave me concern was really a minority opinion. But I’m sure glad that people are willing to discuss it with me. :)


22 Comments on “On Ableism and Language: An Apology”

  1. erniebufflo says:

    I’ve been working on not saying things are “lame.” I’m not sure why or how it became my go to for “uncool,” but it’s uncool to use it. People who complain about the “language police” drive me crazy. I get that it can sometimes sting to feel like someone is calling you a hater, and perhaps that’s something we should keep in mind in how we word our critiques, but it’s not about being “politically correct.” It’s about becoming aware that something is hurtful to people, and then trying not to be hurtful anymore, because that’s the kind thing to do. BTW, if you haven’t seen Ill Doctrine’s video on telling someone what they said sounded racist, check this out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0Ti-gkJiXc Maybe we need a “How to Tell Someone they Sound Ableist” version!

    • jisun says:

      Oh my goodness, why have I never seen that video, I love it!! So true about the action vs the person. And yes, I want a video like that about ableism!

      I struggle with the ableism because a) I think so much has gone unquestioned all my life and b) I’m constantly trying not to speak on behalf of anyone with a disability given that I’m not considered disabled myself.

      A couple of days after I wrote that standing in the gap thing, I saw a conversation about standing vs sitting, in which a wheelchair user pointed out how so many actions of the able bodies are seen as positive, while seldom do we see the same positive imagery for the bodies of people with disabilities. So then I immediately thought of what I’d written and though, hmm, why did I say that, did I need to say that, could I have said it differently. But I really don’t know what’s “correct” or if there is even a “correct” at all. All I know is that suddenly I’m questioning everything I say, and feeling uncomfortable more often than I’d like. I dunno why that is seen by some as word policing. Politically correct/word police questions always leave me scratching my head. Anyways. Before I write another post in my comments, I’ll stop now!

  2. You are truly one of the kindest and most aware people I know/don’t know.
    Honestly, I wouldn’t have given your “standing in the gap” a second thought until I read your follow up. In fact, I’m pretty sure I was “standing right there with you” in a reply. Please don’t feel bad about your initial post though. You are obviously self-aware and sensitive and making changes that reflect that. Isn’t that what we do? Learn from our experience, make it better for others and change what needs changed?
    Thanks for bringing this to our attention…it makes me want to go back and see what I’VE written that’s been unintentional (or, in my case, likely way overused and cliche). Just don’t let it take or weaken your voice which is always beautiful and valuable.

    • jisun says:

      Aw, thank you for your kind words. Like I said, I know there are people who are not offended by it. But then, I couldn’t shake that maybe there was a better way. Language is so hard, there is so much disability imagery out there, it is hard to know what to keep and what to let go. The simple act of standing should be neutral and fair game for imagery, I’d think. But when it becomes a positive in a binary with sitting, then it feels different. I guess I’m still trying to work it out!

  3. Thinking about all of this stuff gets me so stressed out. It’s difficult when sayings like “stand together,” “crippling,” or even “take a walk” are so ingrained in how we speak. Some words have become far enough removed from their original meaning that even a sensitive college-educated gal like myself has no idea that there is a hurtful history. I KNOW I am guilty of using “crazy” and I’m pretty sure it’s in my blog’s “about me” section (probably need to fix that!). I say things are “lame” (even though my son uses a wheelchair– probably should cut that out too!) and “dumb” regularly. It’s hard to strike a balance between being sensitively aware and being so nervous about using the right words that you tongue-tie yourself. I guess I’m still figuring that out.
    Interestingly, I have a friend with CP who uses a wheelchair and she addressed this issue on her blog a while ago. She said that she is perfectly comfortable going on a “walk” with someone but would refuse to go on a “roll” with them because it sounds creepy. (Her post is here: http://beth2285.wordpress.com/) Which brings up another issue– it’s difficult to win a battle that no one can agree on. Some folks might be bothered by the use of “walk” but she feels the opposite. It would bother her if you didn’t use “walk” since she feels it sets her apart and sounds as if you’re trying too hard. I sometimes worry that this is part of the reson many people feel uncomfortable talking to or getting to know a person with a disability. There’s a lot of fear about saying the wrong thing and, unfortunately, there is no universal rule book.
    Enjoyed your post.

    • jisun says:

      Yes, I think you summed up my feelings really well! It is in EVERYTHING. And mostly, I’m finding it hard to navigate all of this as someone who isn’t considered disabled. I’m trying to be aware that I can’t be that able-bodied, neurotypical person who gets up and makes a bunch of rules up for others.

      On my Facebook page, a friend of mine who uses a wheelchair said the same thing about using the words stand, walk, etc., and it makes lots of sense. I get stuck when the one thing is portrayed as better than the other. And, not knowing where to draw the line when there is valid disagreement. I’m still figuring it out too!

      Thank you for that link, I’m always looking for more perspectives to read!

      • Yes! It’s tough sometimes because as parents of kids who have a disability we’re kind of in this thing too, and yet sometimes I write about it and think “who the heck do I think I am? I don’t have a disability so am I really allowed to talk about this?” We just have to do the best we can.

        PS: I’m not sure why but my previous comment isn’t visible on your page– I can see your reply though!

        • jisun says:

          Fixed it! I guess I didn’t hit the “approve” button in my rush to respond, oops!

          I’m eternally grateful for the disabled activists who have very patiently and openly been willing to give me space to explore this stuff. I think there is a pretty big chasm sometimes between us parents and the rest of the disability community, and that is a shame. I’m glad there are other thoughtful parents out there like you with whom I can have this discussion. :)

      • Galit says:

        I think that people with disabilities are perfectly capable of “translating” respectful use of metaphor, so that a wheelchair user would consider traveling in his/her chair as “walking” (vs. going by car or train), a blind person can say “I see” when perceiving something by whatever means, etc.

        I was just thinking about the use of the word “stupid” when I saw it in a fb comment (unusual, right? :-) ). How do we differentiate between denigrating low intelligence per se (a slur) and criticizing someone who fails to use common sense when they can be expected to do so? Someone who makes a CHOICE TO NOT THINK through their behavior? Is there a word that would describe such a person that would not be confused with someone who lacks the ability to make such choices?

        • jisun says:

          Maybe you’re looking for the word reckless? Willful ignorance? Simply disrespectful? Thoughtless? I’ve really come to dislike the usage of stupid in every day talk. It almost is never accurately used and just ends up leaving me with a bad taste in my mouth. Like someone’s support for the Republican party shouldn’t be “stupid”, for example; they’ve likely thought it out and those are their politics.

          But you’re right. It can simply a matter of sussing out the level of respect (or lack thereof) in the use of metaphors. After someone objected to one use of one standing metaphor, I felt the need to apologize for mine, but clearly it isn’t that simple.

  4. I have always considered myself a writer. So, on one level I understand, even celebrate the power of words. On the other hand, I have so much to learn. And am learning, even today as I read blog after blog about ableism language. Things I never noticed before.
    So the pendulum swings…

    • jisun says:

      Yes, the pendulum! I’m having a hard time keeping it in the middle! And I know this is what has happened with the “gift from god” and “special angels” stuff in the DS community. I guess all we can do is really try to keep open hearts about what people say.

  5. wheeler55 says:

    As someone who has always used a wheelchair for my entire life, I can honestly say that you are probably beating yourself up needlessly. I would be willing to bet that the vast majority of wheelchair users are not made uncomfortable by metaphors that refer to standing.

    Most of us are far more offended and bothered by expressions like, “confined to a wheelchair,” or “wheelchair-bound.” Those two phrases really piss me off, and I wish people would stop using them. Every time I hear some newscaster on TV refer to a disabled person who uses a wheelchair as “confined to a wheelchair,” I want to reach into the TV screen and strangle them.

    One of the previous commenters made a good point when she told about her friend with CP. I have never invited anyone to go for a “roll” with me. When I have been going outside to go somewhere, I always say that I’m going for a walk, not a roll. That really does sound weird and creepy.

    • jisun says:

      I would sound strange, you’re right! I dont think I’ve ever gone out of my way to specify rolling vs walking in that kind of context. But I’m curious, does it bother you when people use standing metaphors in the sense that standing is better than sitting? Not that I meant my previous post in that way, but that’s what I’m most curious about.

      I guess I’m somewhat tongue-tied, like a previous commenter said about herself. All of a sudden, I realize our entire language is filled with references to disability-related things, and my poor brain can’t think through them fast enough to reorder my words to for my values.

      As for being confined to a wheelchair, I’ve never really understood that. I never said it before, because it just doesn’t seem true!

      But really, more than anything, thank you for being willing to talk to me about it. :)

      • wheeler55 says:

        Personally, when people use metaphors that make it sound like standing is better than sitting, I often can agree with them. For some things, standing is better than sitting, especially when you are doing certain types of work. In this case, I just usually view the situation from a purely practical aspect.

        It doesn’t offend me, because I usually view both sitting and standing as just things that people do in their everyday lives. The fact that I can’t stand up because of my disability is just an aspect of who I am, and I have become comfortable with that fact.

  6. Lori says:

    I didn’t view (another ableism?) your post as offensive, although I guess one could. I take offense to language that denigrates someone because of their condition (another offensive term?), i.e., the r-word, and I always have. Definitely food for thought.

    • jisun says:

      I think standing, viewing, seeing, hearing, etc. can be used pretty neutrally. There is a gray area though, and I’m still working that out for myself. And that’s the thing, I guess, that everyone needs to work it out on their own. Examine their own crap, listen to others, keep talking, discussing, exchanging ideas.

      I personally tend towards using the word “condition”, because the alternatives are often so less than ideal. Disease, for instance, is used so often in describing things that aren’t actually diseases. I certainly like “condition” in relation to Down syndrome, rather than genetic “error”, “tragedy”, or just plain old “problem”.

      Gah. Words are so complicated!

      • wheeler55 says:

        I agree with you about using the word “condition” rather than the word disease. The Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) always used the word disease to describe the condition that causes my disability, and I have always hated it. To me, disease implies the presence of germs or viruses. It also implies the possibility of contagion.

        That is something that always bothered me when I was a kid, when the mothers of other children would ask my mom, “is he catching?”, or” is he okay for my kids to be around?” Absolutely hated it!


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