This is something that has bothered me for a long time, and actually led to one of the very few spats between the boyfriend and I (quickly mended, once we both cooled off a bit). I really hate the use of disability-based metaphors. Hate them, hate them, hate them. I believe that they’re part of what makes disability such a fearful, distorted, tragic cloud to people who are able-bodied.
It’s all well and good to say they’re bad, but I think it makes more sense if I actually go through some of the more common disability metaphors so you can see what I mean
Crippled – this one gets used ALL THE TIME. The city was crippled by an unexpected snowstorm. The political entity is crippled by corruption. So-and-so was crippled by a powerful emotion. The poor are crippled by their lack of savings. I’ve even heard references to people being crippled by scruples. Here’s the thing – crippled has a pretty specific physical meaning – it’s a physical disability, usually related to walking. What being a crip really means is that you have to get creative about how you do things and how you get around. It doesn’t mean that you’re unable to do things! I think these metaphors that tell us an entity or person is incapable of doing ANYTHING (or at least, anything useful) really emphasize that being crippled is being useless. And as someone who identifies as a crip, I can tell you I’m damnwell not useless! I do a great many things, including my work at a legal center for people of limited means and my disability advocacy, that I think have a great impact on the world.
Blind – I bet you can’t count the number of times you’ve heard this one – blinded by viewpoints, blind to miss facts, blind to misunderstand intentions, blind to misread things, so on. It’s definitely a favorite metaphor. I count short-sighted in the same category, as short-sighted originally means nearsighted (as in, someone who can only see the shorter distances, not the longer ones). Similarly, long-sighted originally means farsighted (as in, someone who can see things at greater distances, but not up close – someone who needs reading glasses). We use sight metaphors to a ridiculous extent in our lexicon. And through all of these, we imply that people who are blind or nearsighted are incapable of planning, unable to comprehend the information available, so naive as to misunderstand the motives of others, and similar issues that have NOTHING to do with sight!
Retard/retarded – (I am using the whole word only for clarity; I’ve written other social justice related pieces about how awful and hurtful this word is.) Just mentioning this one makes my blood boil, in part because we generally don’t use this one as much of a metaphor. When we say someone is a retard, we mean that they have so low an IQ as to fall into the category that used to be labled ‘mental retardation’. We mean they’re stupid, they’re foolish, they’re naive, they’re incapable…but mostly that they’re stupid. Plenty of people will argue that the way we use the word today doesn’t tie back to those roots, but think critically about the last time you heard someone use that word – I bet it was to belittle someone’s intelligence.
Lame – I’ll admit, part of my hatred for this one stems from its use in my own family, and finding it over and over again in my own language. Lame means having an altered gait, typically a limp. If you don’t believe me, ask someone who deals with horses what it means for a horse to be lame. Now we use it for all kinds of different meanings – stupid, foolish, clumsy, easily injured, ridiculous, unfair, etc. A lame call in a sports game, a lame excuse, a lame-o who just doesn’t get it, etc. Notice how having an altered gait – like me – suddenly gets turned into all these nasty negatives? Listen for people using the word lame around you. I bet they aren’t using it to literally mean a limp, and that what they’re using it for is more negative.
Mad/crazy – Here’s one we use to a ridiculous extent in our language. I’m crazy-busy. Work was crazy today. …and then she just went crazy! I am just crazy about this designer. You’re driving me crazy! The way they treated her was just crazy. That idea is just crazy. Political opponants are crazy. (most of which you can substitute mad for crazy and get the same meaning) Yeah, that’s not exactly the same as mad or crazy meaning someone who is experiencing psychosis (a break with reality) or neurosis (not a full break with reality, but having an altered relationship with reality). These words originally mean someone who has some kind of mental illness, and are being reclaimed as such. Most uses of crazy are dismissive, ways to marginalize people and ideas. Using them for negatives has obvious problems, but what about positives like ‘crazy about this designer’? Well, it still means ‘overly’ or ‘too much’ – when we say things like that, we mean ‘I’m excited about this designer beyond reason.’ See how even that seemingly positive thing slides around to a negative?
Look, using disability as a metaphor tends to come from one basic problem: linguistic laziness. There are SO many other words that can be used! Foolish, ridiculous, thoughtless, senseless, hampered, troubled, restrained, naive. Just to name a few. When you use disability metaphors, you hurt those of us who actually have disabilities. I am NOT your metaphor. Find a new one.