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Issue 4




Changing the meaning of 'disability'

By Art Blaser

It is said that words have cultural, social and emotional meanings, some which we cannot change. Some think that the negativity inherent in the words "disabled" and "disability" may be impossible to overcome.

But I disagree. I think the meanings of words can change. As far as the negativity of "disability," I think we are overcoming it. We've been overcoming it for decades.

The image from the movie of Malcolm X teaching himself to read via the dictionary, and noticing all the negative synonyms for "black," is a useful one. There is a parallel for our movement in that image.

Gay and lesbian movements have changed the way some people use "queer." The women's movement has had a huge effect on how society, and the media, refers to women.

Old habits die hard, in part because they are reinforced by the media. But they do die.

It's not always easy claiming or defending disability. Nor was it easy for Malcolm X to defend and claim blackness. But we're all better off because he did.

When media use loaded terms, conversations can't occur. If a group of people all are "suffering," "bound," "pitiful" and "lunatic," you can't have a conversation with them, or even an accurate one about them. If one's reaction to terms like "disabled," "crip," or "boogered" is one of horror, then conversations won't occur either.

But conversations are occurring within the community that uses terms like these, and increasingly in the larger community as well, as our terms become legitimized outside our own movement. Since there's already a National Organization on Disability, a National Council on Disability and an American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today, I think our keeping the word "disability" is a lot more practical than choosing other labels that give outsiders a reason to say, sometimes maliciously, "They don't know what they want to be called."

With most issues of vocabulary, context is everything. It doesn't bother me whether I'm called "deformed," "boogered," "afflicted" or "disabled" -- if the context is okay. But the context is better if I'm considered part of a community -- not a medical one -- and if we are all working to change the context.

Decades before my interest in disability issues, I was interested (through teaching and activism) in active non-violence and in human rights non-governmental organizations around the world. I learned that lots of people around the world wished that they were called something else -- and even came up with nifty, positive terms used by the State Department and others. There's been some progress, but still there are arguments over what people and groups are called. -- arguments usually magnified by outsiders.

"African-American" means something different outside the United States than it does in this country. "Colored people" within the name of the NAACP (or Henry Louis Gates's wonderfully nostalgic Colored People ) means something different than when it is used by the head of the KKK -- or by the Associated Press. I'd like to see a movie called "Once Upon a Time When We Were Crippled" along the lines the 1996 "Once Upon a Time... When We Were Colored."

We can also look at gay history. In many contexts, that term itself -- "gay" -- would be the wrong one, the new one being "LGBT," which stands for "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual." The important thing here is that there is a history. Not many years ago, the American Psychiatric Association used classifications that were awful; that's changed. Today, even that LGBT acronym changes, with different orderings of "lesbian," "gay," "bisexual" and "transsexual," reflecting changes in society. In particular, the "T" term produces snickers from members of the media. I myself am going to need to use it five more times before I'll always use it. (I should: some people -- although fewer -- will still snicker at women dentists, like my wife, or speech impaired teachers who can't walk, like me).

With the term "disability," we have a major advantage -- because it's been used for decades, and was used by an almost unanimous Congress in passing the Americans with Disabilities Act.

I'm not convinced that our task in changing language is more difficult than Malcolm X's was, or unusually difficult when compared with other groups'. But I'll really be surprised if it's not still being fought by my children's grandchildren.

Art Blaser is Professor of Political Science at Chapman University in Orange, California, and a member of the MediaTalk online discussion group, in which he posted a longer version of these comments.

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