Homedisability5 Ways Language Influences Disability
5 ways language influences disabilityI’ve always been interested in how language can be used to change our lives, both on large and small scales. Let’s take a few minutes to explore how its usage can influence the neurodiverse and disability experiences.

#1: How We Identity
Every once in a while, I come across an article or discussion about the different ways we identify ourselves.

For instance, is my dyslexia a learning difference, or is it a disability? The word “disability” carries a heavy load of stigma and stereotype that many people want to distance themselves from. It implies a complete inability to do certain things, when that’s not always the case.

Another common debate is whether or not to use person first language. In my case, that means I would call myself a woman with dyslexia instead of a dyslexic woman. By placing “woman” before “dyslexia”, I’m emphasizing my status as a woman while still acknowledging my neurology. The reverse is true when I put dyslexic before woman.

We each use language to emphasize or de-emphasize aspects of who we are. By doing that, we subtly influence how others treat us.

#2 Social vs Medical Model & Associated Language
The core of this discussion are the concepts of the social and medical models of disability. You can sum up the differences between these two models in the following way:

Medical Model places accommodation responsibility on the person who needs it, because they are unable to achieve what non-disabled peers can without help. The person is viewed as the source of disability. The danger that comes from this model is that an individuals worth is directly tied to what they’re able to do.

Social Model places accommodation responsibility on society. This model states cultural and social attitudes, customs and methods are what cause disability. While I, and many others, prefer this model, the difficulty comes in when it’s time to apply the concept on a practical level, because there are so many different types of accommodation.

Posted bus schedules with a button to press to hear departure times from the connected speaker.
An example of the social model at work. This was taken in the Mall of America Transit Center in July, 2015.

Language comes into it when we think of how accommodation is referred to.

Is a dyslexic student failing because they’re not smart enough to keep up with the coursework, or is it because the materials provided are inaccessible to them? Should a child’s parents be forced to find and pay for a private school, because their little one has autism, or should the public school be equipped to teach students on the ASD spectrum?

Although we should all learn how to advocate for ourselves, people with disabilities are no less important than people who have none. That’s why the social model is so important, and why governments have passed laws like ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).

#3 Reclaiming Slurs 
Various groups who have historically suffered from great discrimination have begun reclaiming the insults hurled at them as a way to reclaim strength. You can find examples of this in the disability and neurodiverse communities with the words “crip”, “cripple” and “Aspie”.

Crip and cripple are used to refer primarily to people with disabilities impacting mobility, and have been taken up by some members of that group. “Aspie” is often used by people on the autism spectrum who were formerly diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.

This is a powerful idea, because it takes the power from the bullies and plants it in the hands of their targets. It’s important to remember, however, that these words are best used by only people within the group which has reclaimed them.

#4 Medical Terms
Since all disabilities have a medical aspect to them, we end up seeing some sort of doctor at least once to get the diagnosis. Since there is a medical side to it, there are medical terms to go with it.

That said, sometimes those terms are changed because the diagnosis itself became a linguistic weapon. The most powerful case I can think of is in the history of what’s now known as intellectual disability.

Since its first identification, it’s been known as the following names:

  • Idiot
  • Moron
  • Imbecile
  • Mental Retardation

Those first three words lost their official relationship with the disability long enough ago that most people don’t know they were once actual medical terms. Mental retardation, however, is still raw enough in our culture that people with the disorder still feel the sting when their diagnosis is used to insult others.

That, in part, is why the name was changed yet again.

The black outline of a fist with the disability symbol in the arm on a red background. White text is supermiposed reading, "One nurse reported that some emergency room doctors believe that patients with mental retardation do not feel pain and therefore do not need anesthesia"
Continuing to use language to minimize and erase the disability community contributes to these horrific attitudes.
via OccupyReno MediaCommittee’s flickr

#5 Every Day Insults
This ties closely with number four. When we look at the language we use, especially for insults, many words tie directly with a person’s perceived intelligence. In addition to the four words mentioned above, there’s also dumb, which first referred to non-verbal people, but became synonymous with low intelligence.

Ironically, the inability to use spoken or written language efficiently marks people with those difficulties as being stupid or lesser than those who can speak or write eloquently. It shows the most clearly in insults we use against other people.

Unfortunately, those who we may not have been targeting are hit hard the hardest.

The words we use do have power. We can build ourselves up, disparage entire groups of people or make the world a better place with them.

What does that mean? That we’re the ones responsible for how we use language. It creates the social environments in which we live.

How will you use it?


5 Ways Language Influences Disability — 3 Comments

  1. How true I have #writerproblems because of ‪#‎InvisibleDisabilities and I'm a Advocacy Volunteer, which sometime communication can put problem in my way, my other half has dyslexia a learning difference which wasn't id at his time in school.

  2. Communication can be very hard when invisible disabilities are involved, I agree. It's so sad how often dyslexia is missed in schools all over the world. Things would be so much easier for everyone if kids who needed extra help actually got it.

  3. Pingback: Terminology: Why It Matters - Alternative Wiring

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