It’s so subtle, but so powerful. The signals and beliefs built into the language we use and hear and read every day.
This is especially true when it comes to disability. Our culture is infused with language that communicates and reinforces very negative — and inaccurate — perspectives on disability.
The word itself is a problem. What comes up for you when you hear the word “disability?” Can’t? Tragedy? Difficulty? Take a moment right now to just observe your thoughts and feelings. Without judgement. Just to observe what’s programmed down there in your psyche. Really. Stop for a moment.
For most of us, ideas about disability assert themselves in our heads as a reflex, before we actually consciously think. The sense that usually wins out is NOT of a person who is active and involved and engaged, much less happy, but someone living a life of struggle.
Unless you’re one of the growing number of people who already get it. But even then, you can sense your early programming. Even for me as a person with a disability, there is deeply ingrained social stereotype.
It’s no wonder. The language plays into this image. One is “wheelchair-bound,” or “confined” to a wheelchair. It’s a prison, right? Well, not when one gets a proper mobility tool specified (and paid for) which gives them the freedom to move about in our increasingly accessible world. When you can’t walk, the wheelchair doesn’t confine, it liberates.
Disability is called a “problem.” No, the problem is that society misunderstands what it really means — and how radically that has changed in a very short time, historically speaking.
One is “left” paralyzed, or blind, or without speech. Sounds kind of like being stranded in the desert to me!
Even language like “overcome” is problematic. What’s the implication here? That someone is heroic and persistent and courageous enough to get out and live “despite” (there’s another one!) the innate horror of having a disability. These are examples of the especially subtle and insidious language. The idea is supposed to be to reward the achievements of people who continue in the face of difficulty (a worthy quality, don’t get me wrong), but in truth that’s not the effect. “Overcome” raises the bar, implying that living well with disability requires a unique force of will, an exceptional (as in “the exception”) person. So when someone acquires a disability, these deeply programmed ideas make them wonder whether they are one of those rare, remarkable individuals who can carry on.
Even worse for employers. If someone must “overcome” disability (or rise to the standard of being inspirational), then someone you’re considering hiring would have to be one of those exceptional people. The guise of admiring a person with a disability turns out to be a trap that actually reduces the chance that they’ll get hired and be given the opportunity to show what they have to offer.
The very nature of the new, and correct, model of Modern Disability is that success is possible for anyone. It’s a function of getting the resources and support and environment that it takes for someone to have access to their potential WITH their disabilities—and prove the language wrong.
Visit me at www.moderndisability.com.