For many years, I’ve written about language and its power. I do not believe that words are only words. They have the potential to create and to destroy, to help and to harm, to build up and to tear down. I have tried to appeal to people to stop using slurs of all kinds and, more specifically, to stop using disability as a pejorative metaphor.
As I look back over the articles I’ve written, I think that my reasoning was sound. But I find myself changing course about the ways in which I respond to words that hurt.
A little while ago, I was scrolling through Facebook. It was late, I was bored, and I ended up seeing a thread on which a friend of mine had commented. It was a thread on which people were making jokes at the expense of disabled people, and my friend was joining in. The jokes were more thoughtless than anything else. But it stung.
I felt so hurt, so angry, so disappointed. I thought, “Is this what you think of me?” My first impulse was to write her an angry email about intersectionality and disability civil rights and being an ally. I resisted that impulse. And once the feeling passed, I wanted to write an angry post about how crappy it is when folks make fun of disabled people and that they should keep their mouths shut about disability if they don’t understand the physical and social experience of it.
And then I realized something: I don’t want to go that route anymore. I don’t want to tell people that they can’t use certain words.
Let me be clear: I can’t stand the jokes, and I can’t stand it when people insult one another with words like moron and retard; I find them abhorrent, they give me pain, and I would like to see them gone yesterday. But I’m beginning to feel that I don’t want my friends holding their tongues when it comes to how they feel about disabled people. I want to know. I want to know what’s in their hearts. I want to know just how badly the society in which they live has turned their thinking in the wrong directions. Because then I will know how to have a conversation with them – and just how far we have to go.
Know this: the issues go well beyond words. As I write this, disabled people are living in poverty, in isolation, in institutions, in conditions of extreme degradation and fear and violence. Disabled people are being offered assisted suicide when they want to live. Disabled people are being shocked into submission at the Judge Rotenberg Center. Disabled people are living on the streets for lack of accessible, affordable housing. Disabled people are being killed by police officers. Devaluation of disabled people is at the heart of all other disability oppression, and I want to know who devalues us, I want to know how, and I want to know why. That can’t happen if people are sanitizing their words without actually doing the work of looking at their own fears, their own bigotries, and their own abhorrence of people with disabilities.
Before 2008, when I was first diagnosed with a disability, I understood very little about the experience. I joined in on the same jokes my friend just did. I was so ignorant of what disability was about – so, so ignorant. How could I not be? I had been isolated from disabled people for most of my life – or so I thought. In fact, I was likely around a good number of people with undiagnosed invisible disabilities, like myself, and we just didn’t recognize one another as such.
At this point, I would rather that someone tell me how they really feel, ignorance and all, than hold their tongue and let me rest comfortably in my illusions. I would rather that my friends join in on tasteless jokes about disabled people rather than pretending that they understand. If they just keep using the words I want them to use, and saying the things I want them to say, how will anything change? I don’t need people to impress me with the right words. What I need, more than anything, is for people to understand what it means to be a disabled person. The right words don’t create that understanding, but they just might result from it. If someone understands the experience of disability, then perhaps they will be much less likely to throw around their able-bodied prerogative with a tasteless joke.
A great many people already think that they understand disability. They think that disability is just a matter of living in a body with impairments, that it is simply a question of having a medical condition. But it is far, far more than that. It is a full-scale social, economic, and justice issue that affects every one in five people on the planet in a myriad of complex ways that intersect with race, with gender identity, with sexuality, with class, with size, with ethnicity, with religion, and with all else that makes us human. I have not met a lot of nondisabled people who understand disability as a social issue, and that’s where I want to start.
When I feel ready, I will initiate a conversation about what happened. But no conversation is possible if I don’t give people room to express their ignorance, any more than I can have a conversation about any justice issue unless I own my own ignorance. In the country in which I live, many of us have spent much of our lives being isolated from anyone different from us, and isolation breeds ignorance. That is not a judgment to be ashamed of, but a fact to acknowledge.
Then we can begin.[Headline image: The photograph shows the faces of eight white, brown, and black people, both male- and female-presenting. They are all smiling and laughing.]