Archive for the ‘ language check ’ Category

Ableism Or Disablism?

Nearly all the big US based blogs on line talk about ableism being something experienced by persons with disabilities because we live in a society where being able-bodied gives you a level of privilege/being a person with a disability means you experience oppression specific to that.

Many of us in the UK who fight for disabled peoples rights don’t use that language. We talk about disablism the oppression faced by disabled people, because society is set up to primarily cater to the needs of non-disabled people.
Which set of language is the best to use? Is there even a difference? Are those in the UK backwards?
I have opinions on this so I’m going to share them (it’s what blogs are for after all). You can make up your own mind. All I would ask is that you have a think about what the words mean, the sentiment attached to them and if you think they are contributing to make the world a more equal place for everyone.
There are two big models of disability which state the following;
  • The Medical Model – That people are disabled by impairments* e.g. Jean’s amputation is why she can’t get into all the shops she wants to or, David’s Downs Syndrome is why he struggles to find work. In feminist terms it’s like saying women don’t have equality because their biology is the problem.
  • The Social Model – That people with impairments* are disabled by an inaccessible society e.g. Jean can’t get into all the shops she wants to because they were designed without access and/or staff are not trained to provide reasonable assistance; or David struggles to find a job because our society allows institutional stigma attached to his impairment to continue to exist. In feminist terms it’s like saying women don’t have full equality because we live in a patriarchal society.
We have all fought long and hard to move away from the medical model and move towards the social model and to move away from the language of the medical model that places the blame for inequality on the person with an impairment. Those who follow the medical model also have a tendency to minimise, dismiss or ignore impairments without a currently understood physical origin (including many learning disabilities, ME/CFS/Fibromyalgia, mental health conditions and other such things).
With this in mind I’m going to talk about why I personally think the words “able-bodied”, “ableism” and “people with disabilities” are problematic.
I find language that describes people without impairments to be able-bodied, exclusionary and there for divisive. There is a pernicious idea held by many in society that most disabled people use wheelchairs (when less than 7% do) and that most impairments are physical impairments involving paralysis or amputation. It comes from things like media bias when selecting representatives, the international symbol for ‘disability’ being a wheelchair and things like the paralympics where there are a disproportionate amount of contestants with a limited spectrum of impairments. I’m sure you can see why this is less than ideal.
The phrase able-bodied suggests that all disabled people by contrast don’t have able-bodies, which is;
a) impairment focused, something that feels very close to the ways of thinking enshrined in the medical model,
b) plays into the problematic stereotype mentioned above and
c) clearly not all disabled people have physical impairments which make their bodies non-able. A person on the autistic-spectrum or with schizophrenia is completely able-bodied yet I think we can agree they still have to deal with stigma & oppression/exclusion from society. A person who uses glasses to correct a physical visual impairment may not ever think of themselves as being disabled or non-able.
Using the social model we have a definition of disability which moves away from impairments and looks at societal oppression/exclusion/barriers faced by those who happen to have impairments. Those who experience that oppression are disabled by it, they are disabled people. Conversely those who do not are not disabled by it. They are non-disabled.
Ableism stems from the same ideas that able-bodied does. That disability equates to not having a body that works as a “normal, able” body should. I feel that it too is exclusionary and harks back to the outdated thinking of the medical model. It also helps enforce the idea that disabled people are less able than non-disabled people. I would argue that there is a massive spectrum of ability within the disabled community, the same way there is a massive spectrum of ability within the non-disabled community. For those reasons I prefer the term disableism to describe the disabling oppression we face.
People with Disabilities
You may have heard about person first language. People with disabilities is an example of that. Person first language was coined as a better way about talking about people with impairments. It’s pretty simple, you talk about the person first instead of the impairment. So instead of saying “Go ask the epileptic” people now try to say “Go ask Steve”. If the impairment has to be mentioned then it gets mentioned after the person has been, for example “This is Steve, he’s here today because has epilepsy and it’s flaring up at the moment”. It’s a great way of using language to avoid de-humanising people with impairments.
The thing is that it’s a great way of talking about impairments. As I hope I have explained disability is subtly different to impairments, the two words do not mean the same thing. Both words have different meanings. Impairments are something that a person has a level of ownership over, they are frequently part of who they are. Disability on the other hand is not, it’s something done by an inaccessible society to a person. If we were to imply that it was something owned by the person then we’d be taking a big step backwards to wards the medical model. This is why I (and a lot of others) prefer the term “disabled person”. It is a stark reminder that the individual is disabled by society. I have heard the arguments that “people with disabilities” is trying to do just that, but I personally don’t think that using the language of talking about impairments to talk about disability instead is anything but confusing and slightly counter-productive.
I know that there are plenty of people out there who would argue that the phrase ableism is inclusive of everyone who is disabled, it’s not the word and it’s construction people should pay attention to it’s the meaning/intent. I personally don’t agree. Words have meaning, words inspire imagery, words strengthen or weaken conceptions, words are frequently read and heard without intent. I also understand that there are plenty of vaild criticisms of the social model and of the very words disability and impairment and their origins and connotations. I don’t want to turn this blog post into a thesis though so I’m going to leave them for another day.
I don’t expect you all to agree with me, but I hope this post has helped people explore some of the issues around the language we use.
* an impairment is any medical condition (be it sickness or not), mental health condition, learning disability, genetic or cognitive condition etc..

Language Check: Gaslighting

Trigger Warning; talk of mental abuse.

I’m writing this in a rush so please excuse the huge lack of polish. I’m doing it because I’m a bit upset about the way some people appear to be throwing around the phrase “gaslighting” inappropriately. When words like rape are used inappropriately (i.e. to describe things that are not in fact rape, but some other kind of violation) many in the feminist community call people out on it and I’m glad they do. I’d like to see the same with other terms associated with abuse. We all know (I hope) that it’s hurtful to suggest being raped is equivalent to someone posting something rude on some ones facebook page. I don’t think it’s too big a step to suggest that it’s also hurtful to suggest the experience of being acutely mentally tortured is equivalent to someone having gotten the wrong end of the stick and run with it.

For those who aren’t too sure I should probably explain that “Gaslighting” is the commonest way of describing a pre-meditated campaign of emotional & psychological abuse designed to cause psychological harm to the target. It’s frequently characterised by the systematic withholding factual information from, and/or providing false information to, the victim which has the gradual effect of making them anxious, confused, and less able to trust their own memory and perception.
The word gaslighting get’s it’s name from the 1938 play “Gas Light” and it’s later movie adaptations. All the plots follow a simillar thread, the new wife moves into a home with her stern, over bearing husband who is seen to be a flirt. The wife starts to develop anxiety issues. These are used to push her into social isolation. At which point she starts to loose things and she can’t account for how it’s happening and starts to worry she is going mad. These fears are confirmed when she starts complaining of the gas lights in the house randomly dimming/flickering and her husband assures her that it’s all in her head. In the end it’s discovered that the husband is the one behind the dimming gaslights, disappearing items and everything else and that it has been a pre-meditated campaign to psychologically assault and damage the wife.
Gaslighting is something that is premeditated. The abuser doing the gaslighting might not write down a detailed five year plan about it and most probably haven’t heard of term but still they will have made the choice to mentally torture someone, normally to increase the power they hold over them for one reason or another.
There are some things that share elements with gaslighting but on their own are not gaslighting and it’s important not to confuse the two things. The same way violation is a part of rape, but not all violations are rape, minimisation is part of gaslighting but not all minimisation is gaslighting. It’s important for those of us who have lived through the torture of actual gaslighting that the term is used correctly and not devalued/normalised through inappropriate use. I thought I’d make a quick list of things, that when used on their own or by accident, are not gaslighting;
  • Misunderstandings between people – it’s ludicrously common for two people to take part in a conversation and then both leave believing they have gotten two different things out of the talk. Person A thinks they have convinced someone to think about things the way they do, person B thinks they have shown person A how foolish their way of looking at things is. When either party talks about what happened, even though their versions of events aren’t the same, they are not gaslighting the other. It’s not nice to be misunderstood and then misrepresented as a result, but it’s not gaslighting.
  • Minimising – when someone suggests that things weren’t that bad. Minimising is a normal psychological defence mechanism we all employ at some point or another. It’s a form of denial, often tied in with the Just-World Fallacy, where people protect themselves by telling themselves and unhelpfully the victims of events that it “mustn’t have been that bad”. Minimising is horrible to experience and can make traumatic events that much harder to deal with but on it’s own it’s not gaslighting. 
  • Not being believed by someone – it happens all the time. People discount what we say for a multitude of reasons ranging from it seeming highly unlikely to them all the way through to them fearing the consequences of believing it. Again, it’s very unpleasant to not be believed by someone and to be told your experience means nothing to them. On it’s own it is not gaslighting though. 
  • Political Rhetoric – most political ideologies are loathsome to someone. As much as many of us lefties hate the neo-liberal agenda and feel that it is misrepresenting the vulnerable, right wing folk often feel the same persecution (rightly or wrongly) from the left. Phrases like “Birmingham Councils move to giving Asda vouchers instead of crisis loans is just another way they gaslight the city” is not helpful. It’s a poorly thought out, damaging policy designed to secure the votes of people who have never needed a crisis loan before but it’s not gaslighting. 
I can’t tell any of you how you should use language. You can use it anyway you want at the end of the day. I would just like you to think about how you use this word and to ask yourself if it’s appropriate or if you are actually trying to say something else.

Language Check: Victim or Survivor?

Edited to clarify post content.

When it comes to talking about people who have lived through traumatic events people often get hung up on ‘what they should call them’. In most spaces I visit online or in the world at large there are two words that keep being used to label those who have experienced trauma; victim or survivor.  There seems to be a continuous debate on which word is the most appropriate.

Should they be called a victim? Or does using the term victim make them sound powerless and  create a unnecessary negative label? How about survivor then? It sounds strong and empowering! Yet it can serve to minimise the pain and trauma by making it sound like it’s a thing of the past, something the person is clearly ‘too strong’ to still have enduring problems dealing with the event(s).

It leaves us in a pickle. If these two commonly used words aren’t quite right, which label is?

Long answer: Stereotyping people is not cool. When looking at issues of gender there are countless papers written on the harm caused by stereotyping people as either girls (feminine) or boys (masculine). A quick example is that boys get harmed by the societal expectation that they should never show emotion and girls get harmed by the societal expectation that they are automatically weak. In issues of disability we can see the harm the ‘supercrip‘ stereotype causes as it creates an environment where disabled people feel like if they can’t become a paralympian/get a job/’overcome’ their impairment or disability then they are failures. The same goes for people who have lived through traumatic events. Many don’t feel particularly strong for having simply survived, some feel guilty or angry or miserable or numb or a ever-changing mixture of all of the above. Depending on where an individual is they may or may not find it helpful to think of them selves as having been/being a victim. The point is that is their choice and it will rarely be the same choice as another person would make.

At the end of the day labels are powerful tools and are best used sparingly and respectfully. By trying to lump all people who have lived through trauma into one label you will hurt or distance yourself from those who don’t like being labelled that way. It is far better practise to let people tell you what they want to be called. If you have to use a general term to talk about a group of people (as I have had to in this piece) then using non-emotive language to do so is always best. Instead of saying ‘trauma survivor , ‘trauma victim’, ‘trauma sufferer’, ‘person afflicted by trauma’ or similar I simply talk of people that have lived through or experienced trauma. I try not to make value judgements because I realise they can do more harm than good.

Short answer: None of the above. Don’t label people! People have the right to self determine. If you have to label a group avoid using emotive language and stick to facts.

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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