Monday, March 2, 2009

Power of Words

I put a lot of thought into naming my blog. The first part was easy (although I do need to thank Ellie for changing "right" to "write") but I knew I needed a subtitle. I played with a few ideas and wanted to incorporate what the blog is about. Anything with CMT was out because people would think that it had to with Country Music Television. "Disability Diaries" was in the running for a while. I finally decided that I wanted something relatively shocking.

As my close friends know, I occasionally refer myself to "the cripple." I have noticed how people often react with discomfort and surprise. One co-worker continually tells me that I shouldn't talk like that. I think that she is concerned that I am putting myself down. Honestly, I think that I have dealt with having a disability and the language that surrounds it for so long that many of the words have lost their meaning and their power.

My mother was the first person who taught me about "people first" language. For those who don't know, "people first" language involves referring to people with disabilities instead of disabled people. Basically, it is a way of remembering that someone who has a disability is a person first, that the person defines the disability, not the disability defining the person. For example, a person who cannot see is a person with a visual impairment, not a blind man. I believe strongly in "people first" language and I try my best to always use it but there are times that I fail.

I have heard many variations on disability language. My least favorites over the years are "handi-capable" and "Jerry's Kids." I really can't say I have a favorite but my mom says her favorite is "gimpy." When referring to myself around people I don't know well, I will call myself a person with a disability. I guess I would say that I am sensitive when I hear other people using words referring to another person with a disability, but when people are referring to me, I am OK with most words (except for the 2 listed above).

My basic philosophy about disability language is that words only have the power that you give them. In the Harry Potter series, the wizarding world calls Lord Voldemort "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named." Harry sees that by using Voldemort's name, that he retains power that others give him by refusing to name him. It is the same with words like "cripple."

I know this is a somewhat controversial topic. Please participate in the poll found on the left hand side of the page. (So far 77% of My Write Foot readers find the word "cripple" offensive). Also, please feel free to comment.

Thanks for reading and God bless.



  1. As both a co-worker and a friend, I get to see both you, and the issue of language relating to people with disabilities in many different settings.

    Growing up, we all heard the saying "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me" and we all knew it was bull (not my blog, so I won't add the 2nd word). Words can hurt us, and sometimes more than a stick or stone ever could. Hell, I've had days I'd rather be beat with a stick than have to hear someone repeat words that have hurt me.

    I admire your courage. For over a decade, you have been one of my closest friends, and I hope you know how much I love you. To intentionally rob a word of its power, to show others that you will not let them define who you are takes courage.

    I am reminded of both a movie and a TV show.

    The TV show South Park did an episode about "words of power" where they used the word "shit" some 162 times in 22 minutes, and the plot of the episode is about how people became ill from using the word so much - because it is one of the seven "words of power" that caused the plague from overuse.

    I'm also reminded of Clerks 2 (no not THAT scene) when Randal decides to "take back" a racist term.

    I am all in favor of being "people first." As someone who has spent my entire career working in different ways with wonderful people who have had physical, mental, and developmental disabilities, I have seen how society says they are not capable of being full members of society, seen how they are put down, made to feel like charity cases instead of contributing members of society. And it sucks. But I've also seen where people have spent more time and money arguing over what words - and in what order - to use to describe someone, that they actually spend getting to know the person and what they need. I still think calling my clients "consumers" is stupid, but I know others think it is the best term ever coined.

  2. Right on, Devin!! or should I say "write on"!!

    A dictionary definition of cripple: 1 sometimes offensive : a lame or partly disabled person or animal b: one that is disabled or deficient in a specified manner (a social cripple)
    2: something flawed or imperfect

    Dump "cripple" in your title and take suggestions for a kinder, gentler word--maybe "klutz"?

    Engmom (aka Mom, aka Emily)