Whatcha in For?: The Disturbing Parallels Between Disability and Prison

Hello, readers,

I love theater in all its forms, particularly Broadway. I grew up singing Disney songs like a diva and quoting Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music line by line–with the British accent. Among the accents I can imitate are (in no particular order):

-British (King’s English and Cockney)

-Southern (redneck and Steel Magnolias genteel)






-New Jersey


-Long Island

Plus a passable Irish, a somewhat muddled “Jewish mama,” and a couple others I’m working on. Because of this, and my penchant for creative writing, I used to get called “dramatic” as a kid. And I freely admit, when I’m passionate about something, I can overshoot or exaggerate. But I don’t think it’s exaggerating at all to say that for many people with disabilities, life can and sometimes does closely resemble prison. At the very least, it resembles the “holding pattern” in which prison often puts people. And most often, these people with disabilities have committed no crime other than flaunting society’s idea of “normal.” (No, I am not speaking of the person with a disability who has actually broken the law. And yes, I realize the attitudes of police, the conditions of jails, and other aspects of penal life can be especially difficult for those who do. But that’s a separate topic).

What makes me think having a disability can be similar to living the life of an inmate? Well, first, let’s take a look at the language involved.

In my Special Education textbook, there is a cartoon in one of the early chapters, where IEPs, special ed teams, and other “services” of the educational system are discussed. The cartoon shows two kids in jail–striped suits and all. One is in a wheelchair. The kid without the wheelchair looks at the other kid and says, “What are you in for?” The kid with the wheelchair says, “Cerebral palsy, but they say with good behavior, I could be out in 3-5 years.”

Out of what? Special education. An exaggeration, you say? Not exactly. As we’ve already discussed, nothing in Disability Land is a permanent placement, and sometimes, kids get special ed hung over their heads as a threat–spoken or unspoken, conscious or unconscious–if they do not behave the exact way the “system” wants them to. So the cartoon, while mildly funny, can actually be seen as too true to be funny.

Let’s go deeper. A common word used in connection with therapy and other services for children or adults with disabilities is “released.” As in, “released from therapy,” most frequently, but sometimes, “released” from special ed or other services such as Vocational Rehab.

But we also talk about prisoners getting released. And just like with prisoners, we see release as a good thing for people with disabilities. As in, “This is great, sweetie; you got released from therapy.” Or sometimes, “She’s been released from our services” (unspoken message: We don’t have to deal with her anymore–whew!) Or even, “There’s nothing more we can do, so we’re releasing your child from therapy.” (Unspoken message: We’ve used up our resources. And sometimes, that comes with the other message: We’re not willing to dig any deeper for solutions.)

Another disability-related cartoon that can be found if you search Google Images shows several people with disabilities in a daycare center. The caption reads something like, “We now have basket-weaving!” And a sign on the wall reads, “Keeping the Handicapped off the Streets.” A satire of the fact that we don’t want people with disabilities on our streets, out in public–just like we want to keep criminals “off the streets.”

If the language and cartoonish, too-true-for-humor plays on words don’t convince you, let’s delve deeper into the disability-related environment. Think it through, here. For too many people with disabilities, this is reality:

  • The person with a disability is at the mercy of the caregiver or aide’s schedule. In other words, that “helper,” that “able” person, gets to decide when the person with a disability goes out into the real world. Rather like the prison guards supervising inmates in an enclosed yard or recreation room or area. Especially since sometimes, the necessity of calling ahead for paratransit rides and aide assistance means there are only certain places the person with a disability can go.
  • As mentioned, in many places, especially schools and colleges, children and young adults with disabilities have sanctions leveled against them for “bad” behavior that, outside of Disability World, would be considered normal behavior (i.e., a college student skipping class–and no, I am not saying that’s acceptable, but it is NORMAL.) Rather like prisoners being placed in solitary or otherwise punished for what often is unacceptable behavior, but sometimes wouldn’t be in the outside world.
  • Most people with disabilities have, at one time or another, lived on SSI funds–sometimes not by their own choice. This reminds me too much of prisoners being given a limited account, and a limited number of items they can actually purchase.
  • Many people with disabilities are limited to menial or “sheltered” jobs for which they are paid compensatory wages–rather like prisoners who may or may not be paid to do laundry, kitchen work, and other unskilled labor.
  • Stereotypes of people with disabilities may state that, like prisoners, people with disabilities are limited as to what media they can watch and understand (i.e., a couple of cartoon stations on TV) what they can read, and what they can wear
  • Some people with disabilities actually do reside in group homes, shelters, or other places that do strongly resemble prisons, with all the physical, verbal, emotional, and even spiritual abuse that entails for them (including rape or being locked in closets).

Like prisoners, some people with disabilities also use particular slang, often to define their own culture or groups. I couldn’t find many slang terms, but did find a few:

TAB: Temporarily able-bodied (also MAB, for “momentarily”)

Walkie-talkie: A person with a disability who can walk and talk

Bowling pin: Couldn’t find a definition, but may be a slang term for the cane a person who is blind may use

Sped or sped lite: Special education or a “lite” form where the student has more opportunities for inclusion

Reg: A person without disabilities (for “regular”)

Wheelie: A person who uses a wheelchair

I also looked up some prison slang, just for fun. Some of these, you may be familiar with, such as the use of “screw” for “guard” or “cop.” Others include (apologies if I get some wrong):

-Beef: What you’re in for

-Bum beef: You’re in, but innocent

-George: An inmate whose word is good, who won’t squeal to cops

-Lifer: A person serving a life sentence

-Tom: An inmate who will squeal to cops, whose word is bad

-Fish: New prisoner, doesn’t know the ropes

-Job: Sentence length

-Bit: A short sentence

-In the car: In on a deal, especially a drug deal

-Catch a ride: You ask a fellow prisoner to “catch a ride” if you want to get high from their drugs/if you know they know where to get drugs, and want any

Oh, this is my favorite:

CONTRACT: A written agreement between a prisoner and administration which allows a prisoner to leave a detention unit under probation-like conditions (sounds an awful lot like a behavior or work contract to stay out of special ed or leave the group home!)

My thanks to the author of the Web page, prisontalk.com


I’m feeling creative today, so I’d like to add some originals–what “Disability Slang” might look like with a prison spin. Remember, I live with a lifelong disability, so I’ve seen or been around some of this. Here we go:

-Shackles: Leg braces

-Short shackles: Leg braces that end at the ankle

-GLG: Stands for “good little gimp.” My personal slang for someone who kisses up to special ed, service, or other staff (note: this does NOT mean being courteous. It literally means being a sycophant). In “bird-related” slang (see below) I might also call this person a Turkey (could fly, but chooses not to/allows self to be “eaten”)

-Pedigree: My personal slang for your papers–your IEP, your IHP, etc. Because sometimes, the able-bodied treat us like animals.

-Dork slayer: Crutch (or any other walking assitance like a cane. Borrowed from police slang. People who use these have the fortunate advantage of smacking idiots with something that leaves a mark, if they want to. Not suggesting for one minute that you should, but…)

-Hard Egg:  Personal slang for a person with a disability who, no matter what, refuses any modifications or help (not the best idea, although I can sympathize)

-Soft Boiled: Exact opposite. Someone who accepts modifications to the point of taking services they don’t need or, more importantly, don’t want.

-Tiger: Personal slang for any person, especially a parent or caregiver, who truly wants what is best for the person with a disability, cares about what that person thinks, and will make what needs to happen, happen. In honor of my mom, the ultimate Tiger Lady.

-Kitten: To go along with above–personal word for a “newbie”; a parent or caregiver who’s new to the school system or other systems, and might get talked into services or treatment that would demean or hurt the person with a disability. These people need to be looked out for and shown the ropes, not ridiculed. May need help from a Pointer (see below).

-Pointer: Good companion for a Kitten. Knows the system, knows who to trust or not trust, looking out for the person with a disability’s good.

-Put bull: Contrast. This is the person who takes the easy way out, talks down to parents or caregivers, and generally acts like a jerk.

-Veteran: Person with a disability who was born with it/will have it for life

-Rookie/Probie: (Borrowed from police and firefighters): A person whose disability is new. Example: Wounded solider, someone who’s suffered an injury or illness, amputee, newly blind or deaf. Veterans, stick with these people. Show ’em the ropes.

-Hawk: Borrowed from peace/war terminology. This is a person with a disability who’s not taking crap from able-bodied Pit Bulls or their methods, and can be a Mama Bird (see below) for other persons who want to be Hawks, too.

-Dove/Chick: Contrast–A person with a disability who is not a GLG, but is scared to buck the system. May want to be a Hawk, but needs an extra push.

-Full Flyer: In “bird-related” disability slang, this would be a TAB (person without a disability).

-Bad nest: Abusive or condescending group home, job situation, etc.

-Good nest: A job or home situation that the person with a disability actually wants/is their choice/is best for them on their terms

-Blue Jay: A person with a disability who “squawks” a lot about how modifications, freedom for people with disabilities, etc, is a bunch of bunk. May be cynical/had too many run-ins with Pit Bulls or Dark Falconers

-Cardinal: An advocate, either with or without a disability, who is so into it she’d do something like chain herself to an inaccessible bus (as in, bright red, hothead)

-Mama Bird: Somebody like me, actually. Protective of both Doves and Hawks, wants to advocate for everyone, tries to help out the Doves as much as he or she can (for males, this could be a Papa Bird).

-Falconer, Dark: A therapist or doctor who is condescending, gets mad if you ask for modifications, and in general, acts like a jerk.

-Falconer, Light: A therapist or doctor who is an ally (yes, they’re out there. And in case anybody wanted to ask, NO, these have NOTHING to do with race or color).

-Falconer, Pink: A therapist, doctor, or service provider who isn’t a Dark, but acts like such an idiot around people with disabilities (i.e., talking to us like we’re two-year-olds because they know no better) that you want to gag. So named for soft, pink, unfeathered flesh.

(Note: The term “falconer” would not normally be used in front of these. For example, back in public school, I might’ve said: “Yeah, most of my teachers have been Lights–real good people. But I had a scribe for math one time who was a total Pink.”)

-Chariot: Wheelchair (need I say more?)

Understand, I don’t go around tossing this terminology out. I just made it up for fun. But if you want to borrow, go to it. I won’t mind at all.

Also understand: This post was not written to say all people with disabilities are treated like prisoners, or that people who break the law don’t deserve to go to jail/pay the consequences (although abuse is NEVER acceptable, even then). This post is a somewhat light, I hope, way to raise awareness that often, life as a person with a disability is way too much like jail. We can do something about it. And we should.

So what do you say? Wanna go free some birds?



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