BY STELLA YOUNG
Last week, the Victorian Government released Reporting it Right, a handy little instruction manual to tell us the right words to use when we’re talking about disabled people. Or is it people with disabilities? People with disability? People with a disability?
I’m sure you know what I mean – us freaky looking/sounding/behaving people that make everyone so uncomfortable. It’s a good thing there are rules now. There’s nothing like spelling out the dos and don’ts to make people even more anxious about something they already find confronting.
Of course, some people are a little bit up in arms, dismissing it as political correctness run wild. Melbourne radio presenter Neil Mitchell is particularly incensed, especially about what he’s supposed to call toilets.
Disabled toilets are to be no more…And disabled car parking or disabled entry areas. All banned. All gone. They must now be accessible toilets, accessible parking space and accessible entry.
While I don’t agree that talking about the language we use in relation to disability is about political correctness, I’m actually with Mitchell in my general distaste for these guidelines.
The Victorian Government is not the first to publish such a guide, and they probably won’t be the last. There are already dozens of guidelines and rule-books about this stuff. They’re remarkably inconsistent, which is a problem in itself.
This resource from the Queensland Government urges journalists to “specify the disability” of the person they’re reporting on. By that I can only assume they mean “find out the medical name of this person’s impairment and insert some sketchy details you’ve sourced from Wikipedia”.
Journalists already do that at every opportunity. I am repeatedly asked in interviews exactly “what’s wrong” with me and I always give them the same answer; I don’t identify the name of my condition in an interview unless it’s relevant to the context of the story. The fact that I’m a wheelchair user is relevant to a story about access to public transport. The long-winded medical term for my impairment is not.
Reporting it Right tells us that we must use “person first language”. We must say that we are people with disabilities and put the focus on our personhood, lest Joe Public get confused about whether we fit in the animal, vegetable or mineral column.
Let me make this quite clear. I do not identify as a person with a disability. I’m a disabled person. And I’ll be a monkey’s disabled uncle if I’m going to apologise for that.
In her latest column, Lisa Egan sums up why many people identify as disabled people as opposed to people with disabilities.
I just have a real problem with the phrase “person with a disability” and the notion of “having a disability.”
I am disabled. More specifically, I am disabled by a society that places social, attitudinal and architectural barriers in my way. This world we live in disables me by treating me like a second-class citizen because I have a few impairments — most obviously a mobility impairment.
Like Lisa, I subscribe to the social model of disability, which makes a clear distinction between impairment and disability. Impairment describes our physical or neurological state – like paraplegia or blindness – while disability is created by the barriers we encounter in society – like buildings with no lifts or information not being provided in formats we can access. To say that a person “has a disability” is to say that these barriers are our responsibility. My disability exists not because I use a wheelchair, but because the broader environment isn’t accessible.
In my own home, where I’ve been able to create an environment that works for me, I’m hardly disabled at all. I still have an impairment, and there are obviously some very restrictive things about that, but the impact of disability is less. In environments that are less disabling, I’m free to refer to myself in other ways that make me feel proud. In fact, “crip” is my preferred identifying term.
I find the term “crip” an empowering way to refer to myself, in much the same way that some of the gay community, but by no means all, find the term “queer” empowering. Some of my favourite people in the world also identify as proudly crip. Laura Hershey is a fine example.
In the 10 or so years I’ve been identifying as a disabled person, I’ve been told hundreds of times that I must call myself a person first, as though the thought had never occurred to me. In fact, when I first heard about person first language as a teenager, I was fist-pumpingly excited about it. But, like many things in my life, how I feel about myself has changed.
Now, I find the concept of having to clarify my status as a person extraordinarily condescending. No one else is ever asked to qualify their status as a person. Gay men and women are not “people with homosexuality”. Women are not “people who are female”. Footballers are not “people who play football”. I’ve met a lot of disabled people in my time, and not once have I ever met someone whose impairment is so profound, that their status as a person is in doubt.
I understand that some folks prefer the term “person with a disability” and that’s completely fine. Over and above my own language preferences, I think people should be able to describe themselves however they choose. But I do resent being told, particularly by the Government, that there’s a right way and a wrong way to talk about disability.
The “person first” principles in Reporting it Right are just one aspect of a deeply flawed, and no-doubt very expensive, document. It also contains such “rules” as using the term “person with autism” in preference to “autistic person”. A great many autistic people disagree, including Jim Sinclair.
While this guide might be well meaning, and the publication of such things certainly seems to be a growing trend, I think the creation of a set of rules does far more damage in the end. Encouraging people to focus more on what they call us than how they treat us is counterproductive. And the thing is, there can be no set of rules or guidelines for how to describe disability for one very simple reason; we’re all different people, with different politics and identities.
I do agree that language is important, which is why I will always support the eradication of language that vilifies and marginalises disabled people. Campaigns like Spread the Word to End the Word should be applauded.
Putting an end to calling each other “retards” and “spastics”, and generally using disability as a shortcut for something we hate, is one thing. Quibbling over whether we say people with disability or disabled people is quite another.
This piece was originally published on ABC’s The Drum and has been republished with full permission.
Stella Young is a disability activist, comedian, knitter and the Editor of Ramp Up, the ABC’s online space for news, opinion and discussion of disability issues. You can follow her on Twitter here.
This gallery was created from pictures uploaded to a Facebook page called ‘This is what disability looks like.’ The page was started by people living with disability to show the rest of the world what being disabled is really like.
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Do you find the correct language to use about disability confusing? What do you think about ‘Reporting it Right?’