Talking about disability

Deciding on the language to use here has given me pause. What we say can be affected by how we say it, and while there are many opinions on how to talk about disability, there are a couple of points that I think are generally accepted. The biggest point, one that I read in Amy Tan’s novel The Kitchen God’s Wife and have heard from professionals: when talking about people with disabilities, we put the people first. (Hence, “people with disabilities” and not “disabled people.”)

Beyond that, I’ve chosen to use the word atypical in this blog, because I feel it accurately portrays the otherness that so many of us feel, and hopefully carries less connotation of stigma, pity, or negativity. (To be perfectly honest, I think the word disability has its uses; there are activities that some people cannot logistically accomplish – my sister cannot see, for instance, and does not have that particular ability – but it can be a loaded a word in many conversations and minds, and I appreciate that.) The word atypical also appeals to me as a scientist, because I know that “normal” doesn’t mean a whole lot in the context of biological variation.

There are also words that could be descriptive but have devolved into pejorative slang – the most obvious being “retarded.” Taking music lessons, one is taught that this word refers to slowness or delay, and sometimes this translates to medically-relevant human development. It’s usually used as an insult – a cheap insult. I have no desire to censor this word or others from my blog, but I do at least want to make problems with its usage more visible.

Language can also be problematic in the other direction. My own experience has led me to reject the notion that having a sib with special needs is somehow a virtue or the consequence of being virtuous. (Your experience may differ.) Some of this was articulated by my friend Sweet Machine in a Shakesville guest post that also dealt with feminism and politics.

Also, some abbreviations that you may see me use:
POC: person/people of color; see also WOC, or woman/women of color
PWD: person/people with disabilities
TNG: Star Trek: The Next Generation


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