Watch your Mouth: “Rehabilitating” Our Words

Hello, readers,

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know I’m an advocate of people-first language–that is, terms that put the person, not the person’s disability, first. “Vivian uses a communication device,” not, “Vivian is nonverbal.” “Kate has cerebral palsy,” not “Kate is crippled.” “Jacob has autism,” not, “Jacob is autistic.” You get the idea. If we put a person–a name–first, then we have acknowledged the most important thing about that person is his or her name. Identity. An identity that does not rest on disability.

However, if we are going to be as inclusive and fair as we can to people with disabilities, I say we shouldn’t stop at people-first language. (And before you accuse me of political correctness, check out the December archives for the post “It’s not P.C.–and it’s not C.P., Either.”) This has nothing to do with political correctness or “tolerance.” It has everything to do with taking people with disabilities out of the box that says, “Your diagnosis is more important than your name. Your disability is the first thing people should know about you. Your weaknesses will always matter more than your strengths.”

I mean, think about it. You would never hear someone say something like, “Hi, I’m Sarah, and I have psoriasis.” Or, “Hi, I’m Rick, and I have cancer.” You would never hear someone introduce him or herself with, “Hi, I’m Julia, and I’m overweight.” The only place you ever hear phrases like that are places like AA, NA, or Al-Anon–specialized groups where the idea is to recover from a certain habit or addiction. Why is that? I’ll tell you why–because outside of special groups, those phrases don’t belong. Yet, we constantly treat people with disabilities as if they are literally expected to talk and think in those terms. (Partially because we constantly expect them to only interact with “special” groups, but that’s a different topic).

And as I said, it’s not just people-first language we need to be aware of. We also need to be aware of the words we use to describe how we interact with people who have disabilities. I can think of a dozen, and I’m sure you can too, but for now, we’ll focus on one: rehabilitation.

Synonyms for this word include “therapy,” “recuperation,” “help,” and “analysis.” The dictionary definition reads–oh, man, you gotta see this–“Help somebody return to normal life,” followed by, “to help someone return to normal health or life by providing training or therapy.” A secondary definition reads, “To restore somebody’s good reputation after he or she has been disgraced or neglected.”

Yup, time for another one of Independence Chick’s Famous Word Studies! 🙂

Let’s look at what these synonyms and definitions imply. And boy, do I wish I had a classroom so you guys could tell me your answers. I’ll give you my take, though. These synonyms and definitions imply a few things about the person undergoing rehabilitation:

  1. They are somehow sick or “broken”
  2. Their condition can be changed with the right help–“training or therapy”
  3. Their current condition is somehow a disgrace
  4. They have somehow been neglected and need “special help” to be returned to a rightful standing in their society and/or community
  5. Their lives are not “normal” and can only become so through the aforementioned “special help.”

Is that disheartening to anyone? It certainly is to me. I thought we were far past the days when we looked at disability as a tragedy or a sign that one was “broken.” And I certainly thought that, in a world so inundated with the idea of tolerance, we could get over the idea of disability as abnormal or a disgrace, or a person with a disability as someone who is naturally neglected. But it appears not, because we see disability as something to be “rehabilitated.”

If we break this word down further (as I was taught to do in eighth grade English–thank you, Ms. Trussler)–we see the stem “re,” as in “again.” “Habilitate” sounds like the word “habitat” or “inhabit.” In other words, “rehabilitate” essentially says, make this person fit to “inhabit” society “again.” As if the person with a disability–the person being rehabilitated–wasn’t fit to interact with, or even live in, “regular” society in the first place.

So my question again: why are we using this word to talk about how we treat people with disabilities? “Oh, she goes to therapy at Smith Street Rehab Center.” “Oh, we use vocational rehab.” (Right, the place where counselors often try to find a job FOR a person with a disability, before that person has ever had employment. As if, by virtue of having the disability, that person’s job-seeking skills are inherently defective and must be rehabilitated from the start).

Let’s look at a couple other, darker sides of this word’s improper usage. Who else do we use the word “rehabilitate” for? Ever heard it used for criminals? Sure you have–so in a way, when we use this word, aren’t we putting people with disabilities in the same group as criminals? “Oh, no, Chick, we’re not,” you say. “They didn’t do anything wrong.” Ah, but we treat them as if they have, because their brains and/or bodies are not “right.” They are not “normal.” They are “failed normals.” So they must either be taught to fit our definition of normal–rehabilitated–or kept in their “special” places where they can’t bother us.

And how about this? Remember how the dictionary definition of rehabilitation included “to restore to normal health or life with the right training or therapy?” Right–but many, many disabilities are incurable. (By the way, I’m not sure we should be using THAT word, either). I don’t care what kind, or how much, therapy and training you do–you will not wholly eradicate cerebral palsy, spina bifida, epilepsy, Down’s Syndrome, or whatever other disability you might try to “rehabilitate.” Certainly there have been stories of miraculous reversals, but one, those are few. Two, therapy often has nothing to do with them. So why is it that the “experts” continually push families to “rehabilitate” their loved one with a disability? Are they hoping a cure will materialize? Well, they might be, because then, of course, that person would be “normal.”

Which brings me to my last point–what is “normal?” Where on earth did we come up with the word “normal?” I suppose what we really meant was “typical,” but if we look at individual people, we see something quite interesting. Disability or not, everyone’s life is extremely different. True, there are some characteristics we could say occur across the board, such as, MOST two-year-olds have a vocabulary of this or that many words, MOST six-year-olds can brush their own teeth, MOST eighteen-year-olds go to college. But just because one person out of, say, a hundred doesn’t fit that mold, suddenly, he or she is abnormal? I don’t think so. I think it’s more realistic to say the mold needs to change, rather than that person.

So, is “rehabilitation” a word you truly want to connect to a loved one with a disability, knowing the brokenness and abnormality it implies? I would hope not. Now, of course, finding new words and getting used to them takes time, so I would never condemn anyone for using that word. (I might correct you, but condemn, no). However, knowing what some of the words we use about people with disabilities imply, I say it’s high time we find–or even make up–some new ones.


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