Sticks and Stones: The “Harmless” Terms of the Medical World

Hello again, readers,

I’d like to personally thank Kathie Snow for the idea for this post. She recently wrote an article entitled Comparison: The Thief of Joy. The article itself is about how harmful it is when people with disabilities, especially children, are negatively compared to their temporarily able-bodied peers.

I agree that comparison is harmful, largely because I do it to myself, often without quite realizing that I’ve done it or why I’ve done it. Everyone compares themselves to others at times, positively or negatively. We’re told not to do that; to paraphrase a 1970s quote, it can leave us “vain and bitter.” Yet, when people with disabilities are part of the comparison, especially a negative comparison, it’s deemed okay and even natural.

What I want to talk about today is why we think it’s okay to negatively compare PWDs to others, and the words we use when we do it. We all know that old playground chant about sticks and stones, and we know it’s a lie. Words hurt. They leave some of the deepest and sometimes irreparable wounds possible. You can staunch bleeding. In 1-2 weeks, most bruises go away. But words, unh-uh. I still remember some hurtful things said to me–especially the ones that people thought it was okay to say because of my disability. If we know that “sticks and stones” saying is a lie, why do we continue to throw verbal weapons at PWDs?

Kathie Snow points out a lot of the words commonly used to describe people with disabilities. Many of these are used in the medical world, on evaluations, and by “experts.” They include:

  • Below average
  • Severe
  • Low-functioning
  • Sub-normal (I really hate that one because to me, it’s too close to “sub-human.” As in, “under normal, under human.”)
  • Deficient

Ouch. Ouch, ouch, ouch!

Now, I know the argument here. Within the medical world and the world of other “disability experts,” these are just words. They are accepted terms used to describe assessments, not people. After all, if we didn’t say “severe,” what would we say? If we didn’t say “below average,” how would we determine average or above average? If we didn’t say “disability,” what would we say?

Believe me, I get it. Nothing is perfect, including language. And if you ask me, we’ve already censored our language so much it’s ridiculous. Nobody ever accused me of being politically correct and I don’t intend to make them start now. But here’s reality, guys: ableism exists. It exists, and it hurts, and because experts accept it, so does the rest of society.

Let’s go back to the argument that the words I listed above are used to describe assessments, not people. Sorry, experts, no sale. That argument simply indicates you’re focused on assessments, and not the whole person. Let me speak from experience: an assessment will never, ever tell you who a person is, what he or she can do, and where his or her value rests. And even if you don’t use those words in a hurtful way toward a specific person, they still hurt.

Again, I don’t want to be politically correct. It irritates me to no end when I hear yet another person whining about how someone offended them with one word or the other–when the word itself was not an actual slur or insult. But I know what it’s like to see an assessment of myself and feel “less than” and cheated. For example, I have seen assessments that describe me as having a “severe” perceptual impairment. I have seen assessments that place my motor skills at the level of an eight-year-old. My math skills have been called “below average.”

Those things are true–but hearing them still made me feel like “less.” And let me tell you something, people–if those and other words are the words we use to describe a whole group of people, they will always see themselves as less. People rise to the bar you set, and when it comes to PWDs, our bar is far too low.

Doctors and other experts, I’m going to close this post by speaking to you. Most of you, if you are in the medical profession in any capacity, took an oath promising to “first, do no harm.” Hopefully, you’ve kept that oath in terms of physical bodies–but what are you doing to hearts and minds? Are your words breaking spirits?

If you are not in the medical profession but work with PWDs in other areas: you’ve been called an expert for a reason. The people you claim to work for and help, trust you. But why should they trust people who hurt them? PWDs are already in a terrible position when it comes to things like this. Their “no” means nothing, and they are expected to do everything demanded of them. They are expected to act the way they’re told to act. If you expect sub-normal, below average, and deficient, guess what? That is what you’ll get!

Sticks and stones hurt on the playground, and they hurt everywhere else, too. Let’s stop throwing them and start using healing words instead.


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