Having spoken to many persons with disabilities, and living as one myself, I can tell you that one of the most appalling things about having a disability is how easily and often we are dehumanized. A while back, I came across a post that implied that children with disabilities were a problem, and when I called the writer on what she had said, she did the most common thing people do when called out: she denied that she had done what I said.
Not only do we get de-humanized, the very people who do it deny that what they say is de-humanizing, and often blame us for being ‘too sensitive’ or ‘overreacting’.
It’s a dialog about privilege. When someone who is in a minority calls you on exercising a privilege, or using the language of privilege, I know it’s difficult, but try not to have that instinctive knee-jerk ‘I did not! You’re wrong!’
Why? Because as the people without that privilege, we’ve got a bit better view on what the privilege looks like. We live without it, and we can see the gap between your lives, your words, and ours.
What can you do to avoid this kind of privileged language?
– Don’t describe someone who uses a wheelchair as ‘confined’ to their chair.
– Don’t describe us as a problem, rather than for example access issues as problems.
– Don’t talk to the people with us instead of us. Worst of all if it’s about us.
– Don’t use pity. We are not the poor little crippled people. We are people with disabilities, and we are just as human as you are.
– Use person-first language. A person who is blind, not a blind person. A person with a disability, not a disabled person.
– Don’t use pejorative language related to disabilities. Don’t call people lame, spaz, retard, etc.
– Don’t tell us that what we say happened couldn’t be real. Yes, people do awful shit to us sometimes – taking us away from the people who are helping us, treating us as non-persons, telling us that if we were good believers in (whatever faith) we would be cured, so on. You may not be able to wrap your head around how a person could possibly do something so wrong-headed, but telling us that our experiences aren’t real doesn’t change the fact that they do. Don’t say ‘That couldn’t have happened!’, say ‘How could they do that?!’ Both express disbelief over what someone did, but the latter accepts that we wouldn’t make this shit up.
– Don’t treat us as non-persons.
– Don’t ask disabled strangers about their medical history. That’s pretty damn personal, and if you get one of us with some sass, we may ask about something equally personal – your sexlife, your last doctor’s visit, what you confessed the last time you saw your priest.
– Don’t erase us. Cutting PWDs out of the discussion doesn’t fix the problems we try to talk about, it’s just a way of saying ‘the way I and other people treat you is not my problem.’
– Do ask us to repeat ourselves if you couldn’t understand what we said! It’s fine to acknowledge that you’re having trouble with the way we’re speaking, just do it nicely.
– Don’t assume that a physical disability = a mental disability. We’ve got just as much range in intelligence as the rest of the world – from people who have trouble with basic life functions to geniuses.
– Don’t touch a person’s mobility aids – that’s part of their body, and to do so is very rude.
– Don’t do things like pat a person in a wheelchair in the head or shoulders. You wouldn’t do that to someone who was standing, why do that to them?
– Don’t move a person in a wheelchair unless THEY ask you to, and don’t use them as a cart.
– If you’re talking about me for some reason, use my name, or him/her pronouns – I am NOT an ‘it’!
– Respect the language we use to describe ourselves. Some PWDs like words like ‘crip’ or ‘gimp’, some don’t. The fact that we use this language to describe ourselves doesn’t always mean it’s okay for you to do it, much like persons of color who describe themselves as ‘niggas’ – it’s often not at all acceptable for a white person to describe them that way.
This is a very, very incomplete list, but the gist of it is this – don’t negate PWDs. We’re real, we have feelings, and we want to be treated like everyone else. Don’t make assumptions about us. Don’t act like we’re less-than-human, or less than you.
Much like a discussion of gender or racism, a discussion about disabilities, or ableism, is not a discussion about YOU. It’s a discussion about our experience. If you come into a discussion like that, don’t try to make it about you, and don’t negate our experiences by talking about your friend with a disability who doesn’t mind what we’re talking about. Listen. If you want to ask a question that is pertinent to the discussion, be aware that the person speaking has no obligation to educate you.
I apologize if this was a little bit rant-like, but I really wanted to try to talk about the ways that privilege affects our lives. If my references to the conversations about race offended, I sincerely apologize and hope you’ll be willing to educate me if my privilege is showing.