The marginalization of people with disabilities as being nothing more than dysfunctional body parts, removes them from being part of society. Stigmatizing people, as being not normal, being something outside human nature. Language places a pivotal role in this process, through the way people use terms and expressions to classify, categorize, and attach the resulting stigmatized attitudes. Language, however, must be considered within a wider social and cultural context. For example, within the English language, the same word may carry very different meanings for people in various English-speaking countries. The use of language is somewhat individualistic and I think one need to take into account the external perception the speaker wants to create.
Rhetoric is a fascinating tool! Something which can be taught, but also something which can be used in multiple ways: to influence, to express, or to manipulate. In my opinion, the way language is perceived and how persuasive it is, depends always on sender and receiver and most likely on their state of mind. Nowadays, we say that humans are ‘predictable irrational’. For instance, saying something bad about someone else in an already emotional loaded discussion, will achieve exactly this: leading to an irrational response.
Further, if we consider how language develops over time, and how the same word has different meanings throughout its lifespan, it is somewhat difficult to refer to things as being not normal. What do we have to include if we say something is different, if we keep changing the interpretation of it? Should we just change our understanding on the run, or do we not ignore the fact that there is no such thing as being not normal in our human nature?
Maybe an approach to overcome negative stigmas is to teach society to attach positive meaning to words and expressions and have people with disability and from other marginalized groups decide on what this is. If we can convince society to attach positive connotations to terms, we would be a big step towards mutual acceptable means; though also direct confrontation or exposure to people with disabilities and other oppressed groups might help to change attitude and language in its consequence.
Maybe, if we would be admitting that differences exist, we may someday end up accepting that there are no differences at all. For example, over the past years in the city of Cologne in Germany hosts the Cologne Pride. Probably one could think of it as a unique and once a year showcase off the LGBT community. However, the event attracts millions of people from all walks of life. And so, I would like to claim, that it’s great success and general interest has helped Cologne to accept that sexual orientations are nothing to be classified. In fact, it helped the city to become as liberal as it is today. Being gay is barely judged or looked upon and even hate crimes related to that ‘difference’ have become (rather) rare. However, Cologne has been quite liberal ever since I got to know the city. Thus, direct confrontation with the LGBT community may has socially and culturally been supported by a generally liberal mindset of the people in that area.
Anyway, I still believe that we should not handicap our ability to understand each other, by relying too much on academia or politics, to tell us what is right or wrong; i.e. political correctness. I think it is the task for each and every one, to respect and understand differences as what they are: human nature!
Terminology regarding disability can’t be discussed without understanding the meaning attached to it and without reassigning the ownership of definition to the people with disability. ‘Ableism’ as the ‘discrimination in favor of the able-bodied’ goes in line with racism and sexism, while segregating the group of disabled people in social and economic terms. The term is embedded in social ideologies and governmental policies. Though being beneficial on one side, does it convey a negative stigma which makes disabled people converging from a ‘norm’. The former reflected in the medical model, as language being used as a qualifying criterion to define disability for resource and benefit allocation. Particularly, if we argue that everyone can be disabled at any point in his life, hence, limiting one’s ability to take part in society, and requiring as well as willingly accepting governmental support. While, therefore, the latter seems to be linguistically irrevocable, but could be solved by changing attitudes, in understanding disability as a marker of identity, as a part of human nature
Maybe positive wording is the answer, leaving definitions to remain a conceptual construct for political debate and financial allocation. Nonetheless, taking cultural and societal circumstances into account, positive connotations and finding universal words appear similarly difficult. Possibly that even provocation and nasty wording, can bring change in attitude, because it challenges and might open society’s mindset? What about the ‘normalization’ of disability, in admiring and acknowledging the achievements of a person to ‘overcome’ his disability? Whatever the right answer might be, after all the decision and discussion has to involve or even left to the individuals it addresses.
If I like to make fun of myself (and I do) and use nasty / negative words to describe something I am not able to do, please let me. If I ask to not look down on me because I am not good in math, for example, please accept it. And if I feel like I have accomplished something which needed stamina and will, please let me decide if it is an admirable achievement or if it was me striving for personal reward and satisfaction.
Personally, I just want to be accepted the way I am and accept others the way they are. That does not exclude constructive feedback, but it does not include a sense of superiority and classification of what I am as a person: a human being. Certainly, meant in a context of general social interaction and not meant to shake hierarchical structures of academia, professions, knowledge, or age. We all have worth in this world, and we all need to find acceptance for ourselves, and for the once next to us!