Friday, August 31, 2007

Crippling the Language

A question was posted to a discussion group made up of people with disabilities who are active in the media, asking essentially whether using words like "crippling" as an adjective is offensive to people with disabilities.

Oddly, I did not see a response on the list. I find myself fascinated by language, and I expected a flurry of messages being exchanged. As with members of many activist groups, those of us with disabilities who seek to participate in society outside the framework of disability are conscious of how language influences perception. In fact, the person posting the question said expressed ambivalence because "crippling" inferred disability whatever the context.

I'm not so sure. All my life, I've heard and seen the word used to modify the explanation of circumstances. "The crippling strike by the Teamsters has reduced the supply of raw material in the steel industry."

It's strange that I don't object to the word. I even sometimes reply to one of those boorish inquiries like "So, why are you in that wheelchair?" with "I was crippled by polio." I once looked into the word's origins, and cripple derives from cyrpel, which is rooted in Old English as "to creep." I suppose I prefer being a cripple to a creep.

All in all, I think it is wasted energy to rail against words like "crippling." I do believe in politically-correct language -- that is, language that neither patronizes nor denigrates -- but I also believe in the value of words.

I can remember my parents saying "Gary was crippled by polio." I cannot remember it jarring my psyche. I thought it a hard, harsh word, true, but it also was exact, and by its very harshness conveyed accurately the devastation wreaked on my body by that virus, that infinitesimal living thing so much stronger than a 17-year-old 165 pound man/child.

On the other hand, I will not be called a "worthless cripple."

It's interesting that the vagaries of language have been displayed prominently over the last few days because of the Michael Vick (the football player) dog-fighting charges. I have seen panel discussions which included African-American sports reporters. No one has blanched when Vick's guilty plea for various conspiracy charges was termed a "black" day for sports.

The idea of "black" as a negative term has been discussed for years by African-American intelligentsia, but the adjective continues to be applied in the most liberal of media.

Thus it will be with any activist approach to eliminate forms of "cripple" from the language. At least I so believe.

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