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NEW WORDS CAN CREATE MORE BARRIERS

For years, there has been an effort to bar any words that might have a stigma attached to them from the English language.

In the early '70s, the "women's movement," for example, served notice that certain terms were sexist and unacceptable. Since then, we've been grappling with words like "chairman," "chairwoman" and "chairperson." Eventually I suspect we'll just settle on "chairhuman."In the mid-'80s, the debate targeted phrases used to describe physical disabilities. Unfortunately, a new list of "dos" and "don'ts" comes out every few months. They are put out by a number of groups and agencies, all with the best intentions, I'm sure. But they contradict each other and create havoc for those who take them seriously.

In fact, using the correct language has received so much emphasis that people are confused and no longer sure how to characterize a disability. I fear that, worried about offending someone or using a "wrong" term, we'll find that people simply choose to avoid the subject of disabilities or those who have them.

The purpose of such language awareness, I have been told, is to point out that those people with disabilities are persons first and their disabling condition is merely a part of their lives.

I thought that went without saying. But having looked at three "current" lists (which frequently contradict each other, I might add), I have decided that much of the language-awareness effort actually builds walls between people, rather than tearing them down.

I don't mean that no one should care about language. Some of it is obvious: Use of terms like "gimp," "imbecile," "idiot," "loony," "nuts," "crip," etc., as descriptions of a physical disability is simply inexcusable.

Other words, however, fall into the cracks. Two years ago I was told in no uncertain terms to refer to someone who uses a wheelchair as "physically challenged" or "handicapable." Now, those are star entries on the list of no-nos.

Another problem with trying to get a handle on what is, I believe, basically jargon: What's offensive varies from person to person. My parents are both blind and prefer to be referred to that way. A friend of theirs is "visually impaired," although he, too, has no vision at all.

One list says not to use the words "dwarves" or "midgets" but instead to refer to "little people" or "people of small stature."

Some "little people" find that suggestion very offensive. "For one thing, I am a dwarf," I was told. "It's a medical condition and that's the proper term. I also know a lot of people who are `little,' and it has nothing to do with how tall they are. Stature is more than just inches and feet."

I like to believe that I am sensitive to the abilities and concerns of people who have disabilities. I did grow up with people who were blind and I have always been around others who are deaf (a no-no term on one of the lists, but it's OK on two of the others) or have some sort of physical disability.

But I admit that I laughed a lot last week when I looked over some of the entries. I can't see how you can work them into a sentence without sounding stiff and somewhat stupid. My favorite is "mentally restored," which should be used when referring to someone who is a "former mental patient."

Maybe there's a better way to describe someone who received treatment for mental health problems and is now considered cured. But I'm pretty sure that "mentally restored" isn't it.

It's the same with disabilities and diseases. You aren't supposed to say that someone is "mentally retarded." Instead, they are "persons with mental retardation." Never call someone a victim of anything. Don't refer to them as a patient.

The list of rules is long.

I also think that if it raises people's awareness, it's a good thing. But if, as I suspect, it also makes people nervous about interacting with "persons with disabilities," then it's accomplishing the very thing it claims to cure.

If I'm not sure what to call you, maybe I just won't call you.

And a final thought: Respect and caring are conveyed more by the way you interact with someone than what you actually say. So maybe we should be more aware of how we feel and how we present those feelings.

Maybe then we could skip the semantics.