Wednesday, August 17, 2011

"My child is dumb, deaf and lame"

I'm not a big fan of political correctness. It seems that if we limit ourselves in expression any further soon enough we'll be unable to express ourselves at all. The title of this post comes from one of the e-mails I received from one of the Middle Eastern states and as soon as I read it my jaw dropped. I wasn't quite used to anyone talking about a disability in those terms. And it made me think about how our language evolves and is a product of culture. Obviously the father wasn't trying to offend or insult his son. He was concerned, he cared for him and he got on the Internet looking for help. This is why he e-mailed a Foundation in a foreign country to see if Conductive Education was the right fit for the Cerebral Palsy child. I get a lot of e-mails from all around the world : South America, Africa, Philippines, Middle East or even Europe where you'd think this method would be widely known and available and often those basic concepts, this one thought: "Can you help me" is put in pretty interesting terms. When I shared my observation with our boss over lunch one day and he commented how we should educate people as to the offensiveness of these terms. But how can they be offensive if they are acceptable within that particular culture?

In America they say "children with disabilities" rather than "disabled children" and James Klausner feels very strongly about it. The theory behind it is I guess to not let disability define a person, have them reduced to the condition they have. I often rolls my eyes when we discuss it. My life, my ambition, my goals have very little to do with the words you choose to  describe me. The English readings I find often talk about "disabled children", "community" and "population". And they seem perfectly acceptable.

Because words can no more disable me than enable me or affect me, and I think we spend too much time debating how we are expressing things rather than what it is that we're trying to express. Only in magic are words given the role to alter or create reality. If we know what we all mean, does it matter what words and terms we use? What is the meaning, what is the intention? I guess we just have to live with the notion that human language and perception are imperfect and do the best we can.


  1. Around twenty years ago I was being drilled by vocal memebers of the disability movement to refer to 'disabled people'. Wishing to oblige (and to avoid trouble), I did.

    Then I went to New York where a most right-on lady took terible umbrage at my use of the Britsh-English term, lecturing me earnestly along the lines that you mention, the substance of what we were talking about being brushed aside.

    As far as I was concerned, with considerable failure to understand that there are other worlds than her own, she was dealing with matters of linguistic usage (and not very well at that). Oh well, that is anybody's priveledge and its exercise is one of the mechanisms for the evolution of language.

    It matters more when the words used actually have the potential to relate to material social reality, in which case misuse may actually confuse and mislead.

    I shall continue to try to resist that.

  2. Ralph,

    The use of words and labels can be either a limitation or freeing to a person! I think each person responds differently to the labels we use to describe them. When I was first encountering people which slower mental capacity we were told the call them retarded, that evolved to special needs, then to disabled to as you now describe as person with disabilities or even as challenged. I think everyone is more concerned about the context in which the word is used, rather than to be so concerned with the word itself.

  3. Back in the mid-1970s, when I first began working with "retarded and handicapped" children, those were proper terms and not considered at all offensive. I can see why people wanted those terms changed, however. Both do carry negative connotations. Most labels used since that time have been far more positive. Some are even damned silly. I don't use silly terms. I will use politically correct terms if they feel correct rolling of of my tongue.

    Times change. Terms change. But overall, I have observed the same for more than 50 years. The same type of people continue to care and will also try to use terms that are fitting.

    Those same people will aid folks whose chair gets stuck at the side of a ramp, and then flips. Many of them will have a fantastic outlook on life, too. I was happy to hear that you met a couple of them when you needed them. I meet them sometimes, too. :)