To kick off our UK Disability History Month celebrations, Erk Gunce, MA Student and member of King’s staff has kindly offered to write a guest post for us which reflects on the Dialogues on Disability conference and the importance of language when it comes to talking about the experience of being disabled.
We re also hosting a very special Language and Disability Workshop on the 3rd of December as part of our UK Disability History Month events which will also launch of King’s new Disability Peer Mentoring Fund, an exciting initiative to help students get involved in inclusive practices at King’s.
To all allies, hello!
I have just returned from Dialogues on Disability. The week-long disability awareness program took place in Humboldt University, Berlin. Every year, the Disability Support team at King’s sends students to different countries to increase their disability awareness. This year, at Humboldt University, we spent hours discussing the barriers imposed on disabled people and ways of removing them.
As a linguist, I am intrigued by language. The words we use… are they biased? In Berlin, I led a workshop on Language and Disability. With students from all over the world, we analysed the language used to talk about disabled people. We weren’t happy with what we found.
The words we use to talk about disabilities have a lot of subtle biases. Think about the word ‘special education’. By calling someone special, we alienate them. Wouldn’t it be better to normalise disability, instead of alienating it?
There is much debate around terminology. Some people call themselves ‘disabled person’, others prefer ‘person with a disability’. Emphasizing the word ‘person’ highlights that one is a person, before anything else. Emphasizing the word ‘disabled’ highlights that disabled people are objects of a disablement – it is society who disable them, by not creating an accessible society.
The Guardian has a style guide. Columnists are told to avoid certain words, like ‘wheelchair-bound’. The word ‘wheelchair-bound’ suggests that someone is forced to use a wheelchair, that the wheelchair is a burden, an obligation. Isn’t it ironic to call a wheelchair a burden? A wheelchair is a liberator: it is what enables wheelchair users to contribute to society.
Did you see the British Government’s guide on inclusive language use ? They argue that we should say ‘non-disabled’, instead of ‘able-bodied’. Arguably, the word ‘able-bodied’ neglects mental health disabilities. How, then, can our language be fully inclusive? Think about the word ‘disorder’. Does it imply sickness? Why say that someone has a ‘learning disorder’, instead of a ‘learning difference’? Need I mention ‘delicate’, ‘spastic’, ‘handicapped’?
What I find unbelievable is that language bias is universal. Disability in French is invalidité. In Italian, it’s invalidità. In Slovenian, it’s invalidnosti. Can you see the trend? And it doesn’t end there. Connotations can change from one culture to another. Saying ‘hearing impaired’ can be offensive in America, but in the UK, it’s considered neutral.
So, how do we talk about disability? And which words are inclusive? My advice is to think. Reflect on the words you use and their subtle meanings. My second advice is to ask. Every disabled person will use different words to describe their condition. Ask what words they use to describe themselves. Better to ask than assume.