Language Check – Assisted Dying Campaigners

I have this conversation a lot so I want to get it written down for ease of referencing back to later. If you are not the kind of person who appreciates someone suggesting that you may have been unintentionally offensive to sick/disabled people and explaining why then I wouldn’t bother to read the rest; enjoy the rest of your day! If on the other hand you want to read on so that you can look for ways of improving your argument and/or being more intersectional, then you are welcome to read my thoughts on the issue.

Assisted dying is a issue many people feel pretty strongly about and is a topic that regularly raises it’s head in our society. It’s also one that has many overlaps with the world of sickness & disability; I don’t think I need to explain why. Unfortunately a lot of the language used to talk about assisted dying is dripping with non-sick/disabled privilege and thinly veiled disablism (ableism for many of my non-British readers). Now, I am sure that the vast majority of assisted dying campaigners are not being intentionally disablist. I’m sure many probably feel quite shocked to hear that suggestion, given how hard they fight for the rights of terminally ill people. Still, all because one doesn’t intend to appear unsympathetic to a group doesn’t mean they are incapable of being hurtful or offensive by mistake.

There is a myth that living with many of the trappings of disability is automatically miserable. Pain, discomfort, differently functioning body parts, loss of control of body parts and/or the need for assistance are spoken about as a fate worse than death. Something that needs to either be overcome or hidden away. Very rarely do we hear people in the media talking about just living with it; how even though some things are different in many ways they are also very similar.

There is a real risk that the language used by assisted dying campaigners can fall into the trap of re-enforcing this unhelpful stereotype. When campaigners talk about “…the indignity of needing care…” or “…the misery of living in pain…” they perpetuate the idea that living with pain or needing assistance is somehow always unbearable. The message I hear, and that many others who live with impairments that cause pain, confusion, sensory loss and/or require extra assistance hear, is an intensely negative one: that, to be blunt, death is better than having to ask your partner to dress you or having to take a cocktail of drugs.

Of course one can’t ignore that for very many people (especially the currently non-disabled/ able-bodied) the thought of living in pain or needing care does seem like a fate worse than death. I can’t be alone in having people comment (intending to be somehow supportive) on how they would have killed themselves, or wouldn’t be able to live, if they had my condition. This is something I could do without hearing to be honest. When I am having a bad day I don’t need those messages about how no one would blame me if I killed myself haunting me. I try to explain, often to disbelieving folk, that the reality of the situation is often extremely different. Our bodies are amazing things and we all learn to cope and adapt to our new circumstances. What seemed so scary before suddenly becomes everyday. What makes this process hard is continual messages from society that our illness, disability or impairment is either something that we should be able to completely overcome so that we can live “like normal people” or is so bad that we should give up. It is harder to live with a new (or old) condition when we are told that care is something that causes loved ones physical and mental distress, is something we are undeserving of, or is something we have learnt to fear because of it’s chequered history of abuses.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that impairments and disabilities are things that we can often live with and in themselves shouldn’t be treated as terrifying things. The things that we need to look at are the reasons people are scared of needing care, scared of having to depend on others, scared of not being able to work, scared of needing equipment and automatically scared of ill health & disability.

Now, I’m not against assisted dying as a concept. I feel that people who wish to choose their time of death and are not currently being coerced by societal pressures, mental health problems or others should be able to do so. I am not trying to suggest that all conditions are things people should be forced to live with, I can only speak of my experience of sickness & disability and that of talking about these matters with other sick & disabled people. I am also not trying to be a mouthpiece for all sick & disabled people, I am sure there are many out there that don’t agree with my take on things. All I am trying to do is suggest that their might be a better way of doing things that does not contribute to harmful stereotypes about disability. I want to challenge people who simply haven’t thought about, or don’t think about, the impact which broad sweeping statements about ill health, degenerative conditions and dependency can have on those that hear it; specifically the effect it has on those who live with such conditions daily.

So, I respectfully ask that those engaged in the debate, particularly those pro-assisted dying, think before they speak and consider the impact of their words on the chronically sick & disabled people who are listening.

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