On Disability, Language and Meaning
“Why is she in a wheelchair?”
That day, we were discussing how high school students could visit a health center, and I had posed a question about what might hinder self-advocacy in these spaces. In the student’s hand, a slip of paper painted one of the scenarios to unpack: two girls in a relationship, both sexually active and seeking information about what safe sex looked like at a health clinic. But the conversation had shifted to the image of a young person in a wheelchair. Perhaps the couple pictured did not fit their expectations of what two sexually active people in a relationship. After asking the student to clarify, we talked about the possibility of a health worker not taking her question seriously because the worker think information about safe sex is not applicable to someone in a wheelchair.
Looking back, I am reminded of the importance to not conflate disability with inability, as well as the hurtful implications that seemingly innocuous language can carry– regardless of intention. We ought to ask ourselves: What biases and beliefs lie beneath what we say? What meanings and histories do these words and phrases and remarks hold, and what might I be reinforcing by saying them? We are told to ask ourselves these questions when we use clinical diagnoses as catch-all terms that stray far from nuanced definitions, like calling yourself OCD because you’re particular about your desk arrangement. We should do the same with ableist language.
For a long time, I described others with mental illness as having “suffered from” or being “afflicted by” it. I’ve since changed my language to they have and live with it. Sure, their mental illness might be debilitating, and they might genuinely see it as a source of suffering, but that isn’t anyone’s narrative to define but their own. After Stephen Hawking’s death, journalist Wendy Lu addressed the saliency of language when writing about disability. She urged writers to avoid turning Hawking’s story into “inspiration porn,” a frame enabled by language like “bound to a wheelchair” and “suffered from ALS.”
When we talk about ableism, we rightfully look at large, systemic issues like the inaccessibility of transportation options and the rollback of legal protections for people with disabilities. But we should also talk about the language we use and its ability to reinforce biases that create an environment hostile to their needs. Going forward, I will continue to be cognizant of the everyday language I use. I plan on paying more attention to the implications accompanying phrases like “crippled by,” which I had thought little of until our discussion about disability at the CUNY Graduate Center.