A word on words

Along for the Ride

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“How’s the crip life treating you?”

I turn my head to see a group of guys huddled together near the steps in front of Wheeler Hall. One of them is on crutches, his left foot wrapped in a neon pink cast. He shrugs and mutters a response to his friend that doesn’t reach my ears. Then one of the others realizes I’m observing them and awkwardly shushes the group.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard such ableist slurs directed toward nondisabled people. It’s also not the first time that I’ve seen people try to correct their mistake once they’ve noticed my presence. But they don’t have to worry — I’m not offended.

Why, you might ask? Simple. I just don’t have the energy or the time.

I am bombarded with verbal microaggressions everywhere I go. From hearing a popular slur thrown around by my peers on the way to class to reading offensive descriptors in political analyses by respected news sources, ableism is ingrained into our culture so deeply that we use problematic language in nearly every situation.

Take the word “crazy,” for instance. This word has appeared in popular songs, books, movies and more, and we never question it. But the word carries an intense stigma for people who have mental disabilities, which is reflected in various realms of pop culture. I’m guilty too — I use “crazy” to describe everything from computer science projects to plot twists in my favorite whodunit novels. I do have an acute awareness of the history of institutions, but I’ll never truly understand the implications of “crazy” if I’m not mentally disabled.

Because certain words are so pervasive in our culture, it doesn’t make sense to take offense every time they are used. All that will do is get the person labeled as a “snowflake,” and then even the productive things they say will be dismissed as an overreaction. What is important, however, is for those who do use ableist language to take the time to research and understand the context and implications of the terms they are using.

One thing that does get on my nerves is euphemisms. They run rampant when used to refer to the disabled community, and they’re perpetrated by people who don’t want to offend and almost always mean well.

Here, too, history becomes relevant. The phrase “differently abled” was coined by the Democratic National Committee in the 1980s — notably at a point when it didn’t have disabled people at the decision-making table. Instead of empowering and supporting disabled individuals, therefore, the term was used to appeal to nondisabled allies and bolster the benevolent reputation of the Democratic party. The phrase has now actually become an object of revulsion for many disabled people.

Even within the disabled community, however, there isn’t always a consensus on the “right” way to say something. People-first language is a linguistic trend that seeks to emphasize the humanity of those with disabilities. An example would be to say “person with a disability” rather than “disabled person.” This has been embraced by many disabled people and is slowly becoming more widely acknowledged in the nondisabled world, too.

But a growing number of disabled people — including myself, if you haven’t noticed — have begun to reject this sentiment. My inner grammarian tingles at the word “disabled.” The use of passive voice in the verb conjugation signifies that there is someone or something doing the disabling. It implies that the disability comes from an outside source, whereas people-first language, because of the linguistic limitations it imposes, indicates that the disability is rooted within the individual. These terms reflect the different paradigms of disability and the mindsets that are associated with each. Either way, someone’s disability should only be referred to if it’s relevant in the context of the conversation.

It’s important to note that policing people’s language surrounding disability can be detrimental. I have had far too many close friends stutter and stumble when asking about my disability, worried that they’ll accidentally offend me with a harmless question. Criticizing word choice will only add to that fear and prevent them from learning and changing their perspective.

But there are some words disabled people can say that are off-limits to nondisabled people. When I’m with my disabled friends, I’ll refer to myself as crippled because that’s a shared identity between us and we all understand and embrace the implications of it. 

Going into this, I didn’t anticipate spending 900 words talking about words. To be honest, I don’t think that the terminology people use is all that important, and I certainly don’t expect everybody to be politically correct all the time. But words, as innocuous as they may seem on the surface, are reflective of the attitude and culture of our society and they can say a lot about how we view ourselves and others. Once we change our systems and our perceptions, our language will change with us.

Vyoma Raman writes the Monday column on how mobility disabilities affect college life. Contact her at [email protected].