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How our everyday language harms those with disabilities

At the end of an interview for a prestigious residency, I mention my physical access needs, making it clear that I can walk and manage some stairs.

“We’ve had wheelchair-bound fellows before,” my interviewer tells me.

As soon as I hear her say “wheelchair-bound,” I feel an all-too-familiar hollow in my stomach. It is as if I’ve been punched there. It is how I know a description of disabled people is awry.

I could tell her that “wheelchair-bound” is an inaccurate term, pointing out that no wheelchair user I know is bound to a wheelchair, that every wheelchair user I know has developed techniques and support to transfer into a bed, or onto a toilet. But, knowing that this is an important interview, I remain silent, which leaves my stomach feeling rather sore.

I feel this far too often. Many friends use the word “lame” to describe something, or someone, stupid. According to the Oxford Living Dictionaries, the definition of “lame” actually means “unable to walk without difficulty as the result of an injury or illness affecting the leg or foot.” But, over time, “lame” has come to connote something or someone stupid.

It is not only friends who use “lame” but also some well-known, liberal luminaries, such as Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman.

In the 2012 article “An Unserious Man,” Krugman describes Representative Paul Ryan’s response to criticisms of his Medicare plan as “incredibly lame.” I’ve cringed when MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow spouts “lame” from her broadcasting desk. In a 2018 Slate article, Ben Mathis-Lilley uses “lame” in his description of the political messaging of Democratic Party leaders Nancy Pelosi and Charles Schumer.

Thus, the connection between disability and stupidity, between a physical trait and intellectual ability, lives in our popular lexicon. Why should this matter?

“Precision with language is essential,” branding expert Elizabeth Talerman told me in a recent email conversation. She continued:

We each attach a unique meaning to what we hear. We internalise language and interpret it based on our own experiences, from the past or the present, from our mood in the moment. Words are first processed in the limbic brain, our emotional center, before meaning is made through our rationalising frontal cortex. Kick off the wrong emotion and all intended meaning may be lost.

The language we use reveals assumptions that we usually don’t realise. For example, disabled students are given “special education,” and disabled people are seen as having “special needs.” But there is nothing special about such education.

The methods of learning might be different; there might be a need for certain accommodations. But how could the needs of the planet’s approximately one billion disabled people be called special?

It wasn’t until the 1970s that millions of students in the United States, as a matter of law, gained the right to receive the education they deserved. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 required schools to make accommodations for disabled students after centuries of isolating and ignoring them.

In 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act enforced the right of children with disabilities to receive a free and appropriate education. There is nothing special about a “free appropriate education,” but many are still begrudged this legal right. If we didn’t call this “free appropriate education” special, might such rights be granted more easily?

How many times have you called someone a moron? When doing so, you are using a word coined by U.S. psychologist and eugenicist Henry Goddard. Goddard took “moron” from the Greek root moros, meaning dull or foolish. In true eugenic fashion, Goddard promulgated the idea that there was a correlation between low intelligence and criminality. To Goddard, so-called morons were a threat to the American social fabric.

In the first decades of the 20th century, the U.S. government oversaw the involuntary sterilisation of 60,000 developmentally disabled Americans. In the Supreme Court’s 1927 ruling on Buck v. Bell, Oliver Wendell Holmes asserted that these sterilisations did not violate the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. In his decision, the much-lauded justice wrote the infamous line “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” The ruling has never been expressly overturned.

When Goddard coined “moron,” the number of immigrants arriving in the United States was at record levels. JoElla Straley writes for NPR’s “Code Switch” that, “for his part, Goddard wanted to ensure there were no ‘morons’ among them.”

Writing in The New Yorker about recent media coverage of the group of migrants moving through Mexico, Masha Gessen notes:

Everyone, it seems, is calling the procession a “caravan.” The journalist Luke O’Neil has pointed out that the word’s Persian roots conjure the image of “people trekking across the desert with camels (ie terrorists of course).” It is less an organised trek than it is an “exodus,” a spontaneous movement of thousands who are fleeing a place more than they are pursuing a destination.

Would changing the language we use change how those deemed “other” are seen and treated? “The choice of each word may make the difference between piercing complacency or suffering the fate of indifference, between creating alignment or sowing the seeds of dissent,” Talerman observed in our conversation.

Inaccurate words deny that wheelchair users exist independent of their wheelchairs, assume that those of us who are physically disabled are stupider than non-disabled folks, begrudge the civil rights of disabled students, endanger those who are erroneously feared (like the migrants walking in the so-called caravan), and imply motivations that are instead mere projection. Inaccurate words not only sow misunderstanding but also dehumanise, which is probably why they are used — consciously or not — in the first place.

This is neither a matter of political correctness nor of hurt feelings. Underlying these words are gross misunderstandings and suspect motivations, which lead to wrongheaded policy, denial of legal rights, and mistreatment of those with perceived differences.

It’s no wonder that when I hear such words, my body revolts as forcefully as if I have been punched. Seemingly innocuous words can be just as violating as a fist. And sometimes they have just as cruel consequences — sometimes even longer-lasting ones.

We need to educate ourselves about the myriad words and phrases used to undermine the accurate description of disabled lives. We need to refrain from ablesplaining when those of us who are disabled point out these inaccurate words. We need to interrupt the use of such words, pointing out the inaccuracy in what is being said. We all need to think more clearly about what we say, as well as about what the words we use actually mean.

My residency interviewer’s words silenced me into inaction. In that situation, I didn’t feel empowered to interrupt and educate her about her inaccurate words. But my non-disabled husband did write to Paul Krugman about his use of the word “lame.” As far as we know, Krugman has not used the word since.

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