Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Refined in a Wheelchair

After I posted about the patronizing language in the news reports surrounding the van with a wheelchair lift being stranded on the collapsed bridge in Minneapolis, my friend Ruth recently commented "I never would have thought that confined to a wheelchair would produce affront. I’m not sure I even understand why it does. In any event I’ve never used the phrase for whatever reason. I usually say, She uses a wheelchair, if the need ever arises. Is that acceptable?"

I doubt politically-correct language does much other than to inject an awareness of otherness into the public discourse. I don't think it actually changes attitudes, not here and now. But I support it. I'm happy the NAACP decided to bury the N-word even though I may still hear it.

Many disability activists are adamant, however, about language labels because so much terminology about disability is rooted in reflections of illness or dependency. As for me, I dislike specific terms because I believe in the power of words.

The example Ruth cites -- confined to a wheelchair -- is both inaccurate and bears a negative connotation. It's inaccurate because no one is confined to a wheelchair. People who use them for all or part of the day get out of them to bath or to sleep, or perhaps to ride in a vehicle or even fly to Key West. And, of course, the word confined is self-evident in its negativity.

The alternative example she offered is perfect. It's people-first language. She uses a wheelchair. She enjoys Italian food. She reads philosophy.

Coincidentally, the comment about my post can one day before I discovered Guidelines for Reporting and Writing about People with Disabilities, as issued by the University of Kansas' Research and Training Center on Independent Living. The thrust of that document is "people first" as individuals rather than as groups.

For example, an appellation like the disabled is as amorphous as the French. People with disabilities are as individualized as people without disabilities.

Language can elevate. Language can devalue. There's no clearer example than the common reference to a person left nonresponsive because of a severe brain anamoly as being in a persistent vegetative state. Sadly, even though the RTCIL seemingly approves this terminology over the bare-bones "He's been left a vegetable," many people in the disability movement think it's not so much "a syndrome in search of a name," as it is "a judgement in search of a syndrome."

I agree. Once a person is wheelchair-bound he's likely to pop a gasket and become a vegetable.


Language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation. - Angela Carter.

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