Chapter III – The Power of Language


In Germany, we are introduced to a second language early on, though every time I am starting to learn a new one, three things are of particular importance to me: firstly, to learn which stereotypes exist; secondly, their perception and use within the societal group I am utilizing this ‘new’ language in; and, lastly, to understand the various situations where one might ‘put his foot in one’s mouth’.

Surely, there will be times in our lives where every one of us intentionally or unintentionally is perceived as ‘politically incorrect’. However, being aware that language elicits negative emotions and might provoke anger helps to solve those situations.  Actually, political correctness may as well constitute a threat compared to the ability to discuss different beliefs and assumptions in an open manner.  Being able to address and identify stigmas can be difficult, but I am a strong believer that explaining one’s views and perceptions helps to ‘clear the air’ and to gain a mutual understanding.

Finding answers, not defining problems

A very good friend of mine likes to call me ‘edge face’, though the German-English translation might not be the most accurate; I think the idea is clear.  In return I refer to him as ‘egg head’ and because we are friends we generally aren’t offended or angry while naming us as such.  Big toe has been another one, which until today seems to stick, though this one has been used more widely, not only among friends.  I remember that at times I was offended by that one, particularly when those words were relentlessly repeated; somebody couldn’t let it go.  Every joke, every comment had to have something to do with this body part, which was apparently perceived as ‘not normal’.  However, comparing this personal situation to what people with disabilities’ face day in and day out, not just from individuals, but more so from overall society (e.g., through the media), I can barely imagine how difficult it might be to accept that those are just words.  Perhaps, with experience, and probably through maturity, we might understand that language, even if humiliating, does not cause harm in general – the underlying attitude does.  And that might be the most difficult after all: we might know what our friends’ belief when they are being mean, but can we say that from people we have just met?

While this chapter is about languages, we might want to add that addressing someone from any marginalized group feels difficult. Personally, I tend to avoid discussing ‘characteristics’ which makes that person visibly ‘different’, but even here there are limits. I am trying to see everyone as equal, in particularly those which society stigmatizes as being different.  Most advocates within the social constructivist arena of the disability right movement pledge for such well, to accept people with disability as being normal.  Nevertheless, I would be lying to say it is always easy.  Probably even harder when not using my mother tongue or being exposed to an entirely new culture. What is normality anyway?

Furthermore, there is much diversity among people with disabilities. Against public opinion, identifying the cause for an external perceived impairment isn’t a straightforward matter.  It’s these ‘differences’, which further complicates society’s acceptance of the normality of this minority group.  Also, keeping in mind that everyone can become part of this ‘social category’ and everyone is likely to suffer the ignorance our culture has created towards it.  Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising that society haven’t and will not be able to successfully define the term disability, because if everyone faces the risk or will inevitably be disabled someday (e.g., by getting older), how can a unified concept exist?

Something that is similarly true with other oppressed groups, for instance if we understand that we are all foreigners at some point; our religious beliefs may be contrary to the accepted norms somewhere; or even that our sexual orientation may differ from the majority someday.  Therefore, in my opinion, there is no need for an all-encompassing model and we may leave terminology to serve its cause: to be a political construct to allocate pubic resources and services.

Language reinforces stigmas society attaches to the term disability, race, sex, etc.; reducing people to parts, functions, or other characteristics.  The word handicap, for example, refers historically to some kind of disadvantage a person has; something mostly ignored and barely understood.  The issue is that society spends too much time identifying problems, without realizing that time would be better spent understanding the possibility that the assumed issue could be solved; i.e. eliminating environmental barriers so that a disability does not become that disadvantaging handicap.

Language is mainly a theoretic and academic challenge (or problem for that matter) and I do think that to clarify terminology can help to prevent misunderstandings. More important, however, is one’s attitude, somebody’s perception, the meaning somebody attaches to a word, to an action, or an image.  If society would understand the normality and equality of every human being – regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, able-bodied or not – we would not need to discuss problems, we would find solutions; solutions which make the environment and our cultural and societal blindness the cause of what we call a disability, a race, a sexual orientation, etc.

Everybody has dreams and everybody should be allowed to discover their full potential. It is about what we can do, not mourning about what we cannot.  Sometimes we need to be overly critical or harsh to make people listen; sometimes language might be the appropriate tool to be used; sometimes, we need to step on people’s toes, and be politically incorrect. People need to wake up and change their very own attitudes towards, rather than getting lost in discussing possible problems, language may or may not cause. Acknowledge! Adapt! Accept!