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2023 SPSSI Conference:
How are we talking about disability and what needs to change?

Michelle R. Nario-Redmond, Hiram College

Disability is what bodies do, and most of us will experience it, if we don’t already. The open-enrollment nature of disability status may also explain why so many ableist tropes, slurs, and euphemisms persist in our language. Ableism includes the many hostile and benevolent forms of prejudice that confront people with disabilities, intentional or not. For example, when we say people with disabilities are suffering, we assume pathology, but most disabled people experience life as satisfying and worthwhile. When we say, “You don’t even look disabled,” we invalidate identities; and we objectify those we describe as inspirational simply for showing up to work or school. Psychologists still use metaphors like colorblind or blind to condition when what we really mean is unaware. We also say, “That fell on deaf ears” to imply a willful intent to ignore something witnessed. Unwanted forms of helping can result from continuously hearing people described as wheelchair bound/confined instead of being liberated by their mobility aides.

Research shows that when student profiles describe them as having special needs, they were least likely to be selected as roommates (or coworkers) relative to those described as having a disability. The term special need implies special privileges and segregation and has more negative associations than the term disability as well. In fact, when disability accommodations are viewed as special needs, people may fail to consider them as civil rights. Euphemisms like special needs, handicapable and differently abled attempt to put a positive spin on terms like disabled which some consider too distasteful and harsh to say out loud. Euphemisms offer sugar-coated alternatives to avoid offending targets while protecting speakers who are uncomfortable talking about disability. The #SayTheWord disability campaign on social media is all about resisting these assumptions.

Admittedly, people are often resistant to changing their vernacular and may argue, “words don’t matter.” Yet words are a form of action; they can have harmful consequences, activating the same areas of the brain as physical pain. Words shape ideas about whose lives are more (and less) valuable, and words can also obstruct the recognition of ableism. Others argue that “disability terms don’t have the same meaning they once did,” like how the word crazy is now used to signify bewilderment. This argument fails to acknowledge how these terms of disparagement still resonate with people formerly described idiots, invalids and psychos in state schools, nursing homes, and mental hospitals. These were terms of oppression and still are for many survivors of abuse, degradation, and neglect.

Going forward, when reading our own papers, reviewing talks, and planning what to say next, we can be more vigilant about our linguistic defaults. We can replace go-to phrases with non-ableist synonyms and cultivate more inclusive ways of communicating. We can ask disabled people about their identity preferences and listen when they share concerns. When we stumble, we can acknowledge our mistakes and commit to self-improvement. We can all work harder to correct misperceptions and advocate for access. Pejorative disability terms and tropes are pervasive in part because of their repeated use in the media, our classrooms, and publications. The more prevalent these are, the more consensually accepted they become, even when inaccurate. Therefore, we need to speak up and confront ableism wherever we live, learn and work. By refusing to remain silent, we will change the normative landscape.

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