Monday, December 10, 2012


Recently, a friend wrote me about an idea he was puzzling over.  It concerned the language of disability.

The very word itself, he said, was troubling--and I agreed.  He wished there were a term that "didn't even remotely imply 'substandard' or 'not,'" he wrote.  He wished there were "a different gestalt altogether."

(Gestalt!  Now THERE'S a word!)

He's certainly not the first person to raise these sorts of concerns.   What's so great about the word "disability"?  What was so wrong with the word "handicapped"?  Is the word "cripple" still considered offensive? 
In further explanation, he fleshed out this scenario:

Wouldn't it be nice if people thought
'There goes Ben, just like me'
and not
'There goes Ben, I'm glad I'm not him'

Well, I couldn't disagree with that!

In answering him, however, I felt like he'd released a pent-up wellspring of ideas and yearnings.  Every movement--perhaps every generation--has gone through the undulations of nomenclature.  (Okay, maybe that's a bad phrase.)

For example, how did we go from "Black is beautiful" to "Black" is not good, or at least not as good as "African American"?  How did "gay" suddenly become LGBT (and now I'm told it's LGBTQA)?

All right, these are rhetorical questions.  I'm not so much interested in the answers as the ideas behind those transitions.  Are any words or terms intrinsically good or bad, positive or pejorative, or is it just a matter of context?

I told my friend that his idea was a good one for an essay, but that he might want to flesh it out a bit.  Perhaps provide some linguistic history--for instance, I believe the oldest English word for someone like me IS "cripple."  Chaucer used it, I think.  It referred to someone who creeps along the floor (no doubt related to the word "creepy"). 

Many folks I know object to the word "disability" because it does sound so negative, yet at least it has the advantage of being a term chosen by disability-rights activists, as opposed to imposed upon us in patronizing fashion by others.  I don't love it, but I think it beats the treacly euphemisms such as "differently abled," "physically challenged," or "special needs."

On the other hand, I told my friend, we all have bigger problems to worry about than language, don't we?  I think of this when I hear people use politically correct terms like "gay" or "African-American" to say something disparaging and most definitely not politically correct!  Do words really change attitudes?  Not sure.

What do you all think?