Language Barrier: Redefining How we Talk about Disability

Hello readers,

Spring is officially here. The birds are chirping, the flowers will soon bloom, and the sun is out (it’s supposed to get up to 78 where I am today. Not the best news, but I can cope). Around the country, spring fever has likely already struck grade school and college students. But right now, teachers are probably gearing up for last lessons before finals. Often, that involves a lot of review.

Today, we’re going to do a little bit of review ourselves, but much of this post will be new. This blog has plenty of information on how we talk about disability, and things we should or shouldn’t say. For example, there are discussions of person first language (person with disability rather than disabled person), and ableist language (the R word, “cripple,” “spaz,” you name it). Those are still “language barriers” that prevent people with disabilities and temporarily able-bodied people alike from understanding the disability culture and experience. What I’ve noticed, though, is that there are also some common words that cause barriers. These aren’t classically ableist words or phrases. They aren’t meant to discriminate against persons with disabilities. Actually, they’re often considered positive, the way that some labels are considered positive. For example, you remember the label “always happy” for people with Down Syndrome? Yeah, that’s what I mean. Today we’re talking about words that, while inherently positive, have been used to perpetuate the idea that persons with disabilities are “other.” These are words PWDs are tired of hearing, and words we need to redefine. Here we go.

1. Overcome/overcomer.

How it’s used: Often, these words are used to denote that someone is not letting a disability stop him or her from achieving. You might hear a doctor or teacher use it, as in, “I’m really proud of Matthew. He’s done so much to overcome his disability.” You often hear it on TV broadcasts, as in, “Joni has overcome her disability to become a renowned writer and speaker.” PWDs, especially young people, are told, “You can overcome your disability if you try.”

The problem: Using “overcome” and “overcomer” this way implies that people have complete control over how much disability affects them, and the less “disabled” they are, the more accepted they will be in a world where TAB is the majority. It may also imply people who don’t overcome are losers. As in, “Elianna claims she’s in constant pain because of cerebral palsy, but she could overcome that if she tried.” Overcoming can be done, but it’s not about trying or striving to meet an arbitrary standard set by people who don’t have disabilities. It’s about meeting and surmounting obstacles at your own pace. It’s about deciding what you want to do, and what you want to be defined as “overcoming.”

A better way to use this word: Not everything a PWD does successfully is an example of overcoming. I don’t feel like I overcome anything when I write a paper or a blog post or a novel, because I’m already good at that. As speaker and comedienne Stella Young once said, I am not special because I can get out of bed and remember my own name. However, I would consider participating in a physical competition “overcoming,” because my disability does influence performance there. A person with autism might not consider hanging out with his friends overcoming, but he might think he’d overcome an obstacle if he succeeded in a job interview. A better way for the TAB world to interact with this word is to say, “Sometimes Maddie has to overcome things that are difficult for her, but mostly, she’s concerned about helping her community through her outreach to the homeless.”

2. Victory

How it’s used: Often used in a similar way to “overcome.” People with disabilities are considered to attain “victory” if they do something the TAB population automatically assumes they can’t, or would be hard.

The problem: When relating to persons with disabilities, the temporarily able-bodied world takes “victory” completely out of context. They cheapen “victory” because they attribute it to every success a person with a disability achieves. The actual definition is thrown out the window. You achieve victory when you win at something–and PWDs can win just like the rest of us. The problem is, because the concept of victory is cheapened, they often don’t get to win, or legitimately experience the emotions that come with winning. An example would be a well-intentioned parent who says: “Robin wrote her name today. That’s a real victory for her.”

A better way to use this word: I understand where that well-intentioned parent is coming from, because maybe it was a real struggle for Robin to write her name. Yet it would be more accurate to say writing her name is an achievement, not a victory. Achievements are still praiseworthy, and Robin should be praised for what she did. She should be given incentive to continue surmounting obstacles. But she should also be given incentive and opportunities for true victories wherever she can find them. For example, Robin may have poor handwriting, but she may also have a photographic memory when it comes to spelling. If she’s allowed to compete in a spelling bee and wins, or even places, that’s a victory.

3. Inspiration

How it’s used: Yup, this is the biggie, and we all know the problem with it. “Inspiration” should denote a personal achievement that not everyone else can accomplish. It should denote something a person, with or without a disability, is especially good at. Yet it’s applied to PWDs for doing basic, everyday things. We know the pitfalls, so I’m going to jump straight to–

A better way to use this word: If basic, everyday things are a struggle, it’s fine to commend them. If Willow has never dressed herself but masters it, even at age 10, she should definitely get some props. But she shouldn’t be called inspiring for it. Willow’s probably not inspired. She’s probably just happy she did it, as in, “Yeah, I dressed myself. I get that you’re proud of me, but now I have other things to do/be.” Willow should be called inspiring for the things she does outside disability. If she’s a gifted violinist, for instance, she shouldn’t be told, “Oh, Willow, you’re so brave for playing your violin onstage with your disability. You inspire me.” She needs to hear, “Willow, your music inspires me, as do you. Your music is beautiful, and your talent inspires me to pursue my own dreams.”

4. Determination/Determined

How it’s used: A lot of TAB people picture persons with disabilities approaching life with an unusual amount of grit. They picture PWDs fighting to dress or bathe themselves, and then collapsing exhausted when they succeed, as if they’ve climbed Mount Everest. A lot of PWDs are determined, but that’s more a personality thing than a disability thing.

The problem: As with “overcome,” people often use this word in a way that implies disabilities could go away if the people with them just tried harder. The wrong usage also implies PWDs don’t have the right to try something another way, look for modifications, or even give up because they’re sick of trying to do something they know won’t work for them.

A better way to use this word: As with all of the above words, determination needs to be used outside a disability context. Let’s say Hunter has dyscalculia, a learning disability that makes math difficult. Yet he is determined to get good grades, so he studies hard, seeks out his teacher for extra help, etc. It’s fine for Hunter, his parents, and his teacher to talk about his determination in that context. But if Hunter is also a great runner, and is determined to win track races, his determination and grit should be discussed in that context as well. If, on the other hand, Hunter is determined to get good math grades but not do much else, he should be encouraged to use his grit in other pursuits. For instance, Mom or Dad could say, “I see how hard you work at math. That probably takes a lot out of you. You might not want to do chores when you get home, or put much effort into other activities. But I’d like to help you improve that.” This way, Hunter learns his drive is appreciated whether it’s applied to his learning disability or not. He learns to define himself in terms other than “that kid with dyscalculia.”

5. Brave/Courageous

How it’s used: In a similar way to inspiration; TAB people often think PWDs are brave because they do everyday stuff.

The problem: Besides the obvious–it is not brave to brush your teeth or pick up the mail–this often causes PWDs to experience more fear. It happened to me. Oftentimes my parents or teachers, with the best of intentions, would tell me I was brave for doing something I already enjoyed, such as going out for the school play. I get where they were coming from–everybody gets stage fright, and CP sometimes made auditions hard. But I always felt it was a little dumb to call me brave for doing the things I already wanted to do. I also learned to fear that I wouldn’t have courage if I ever had to do something that truly scared me. Therefore, my parents and teachers wouldn’t be proud of me anymore.

A better way to use this word: It might’ve been easier if my parents and teachers had said things like, “Way to go on winning Quiz Bowl; you didn’t even seem nervous” or, “I knew you would ace that audition.” Then, when something was scary, they could’ve said, “I know this is tough, but you have the bravery to do it. I’ll be here if you need me, and if it doesn’t work out, that’s okay.” As with determination and victory, PWDs need real chances to be brave.

Changing the way PWDs and their temporarily able-bodied counterparts view disability is a long process. It will likely be a lifelong one for me and people like me, but we are proud of small changes we see every day. You can be part of that change, and it starts with how you speak. As you work to help yourself and others understand ableist language, think about how to reuse some positive words that nonetheless encourage disability stereotypes. I think our words will be much more appreciated then.

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