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!

Overemphasizing differences

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!