Society isn’t comfortable with disability. And one of the ways society tries to hide away from its discomfort is through using euphemisms to avoid talking about it directly. Today, I’m going to talk about disability euphemisms and how they can contribute to erasure of disability.
A euphemism is a word or phrase used as a substitute for a word or phrase that is deemed offensive. Good examples are the terms special needs or differently abled. Within education the term special educational needs is very widely used.
Many people aren’t comfortable with disability. This is caused by a variety of factors including widespread misconceptions, the perception that disability is a purely negative experience and general discomfort with what society considers otherness. While groups who are uncomfortable vary, the more I research language, the more I’m noticing a trend that it’s the non disabled people who are uncomfortable.
From a linguistic point of view, the word disability, is a fairly factual description of what it describes, even if it doesn’t always appear that way. The prefix dis is added to the word ability, to mean someone who lacks or has a reduced ability in some area. It just means that there’s something about that person that either doesn’t work the way it typically does or works differently in a way that makes what society considers normal functioning difficult.
Yet it is often associated with negativity. The prefix dis, is shared by words with negative connotations such as: disgust, disaster, displeasure and so on. However, there are other positive and neutral words that share the dis prefix, for example, distance and discuss. So, a negative association, is that, an association. Educating people about disability and helping them to understand the nuanced and complicated experience of being disabled, is what will help make disability a more neutral word in the eyes of the masses. Using euphemisms however, will only add to the problem.
Avoiding the word disability, further erases disabled people from society. It implicitly spreads the belief, that we can’t talk about disability because it’s an awful thing. This is because, we’re refusing to use the word. We’re refusing to acknowledge disability for what it is.
In addition to this, individual euphemisms can create their own problems as well, which can further the erasure.
I’m going to use the example of special educational needs.
To start with, what’s so special about them? If you are in a class and the class is given some written material that is an integral part of the class, then you’re going to need to access it. If that means that the blind people in the class are given Braille, the visually impaired people are given large print and the dyslexic people are given material on whatever colour background makes it easier to read, what’s so special about that?
Yes, some of the ways in which these students are accessing the material is different. If you have a class where various students have different accessibility needs, you cannot just print out a full set of identical copies. But the key here is this, they are all accessing the same material. Some of them are just accessing it differently.
The path to equality is not identicality. By calling them special is othering individuals who have accessibility needs.
Additionally, special educational needs can be used as a means to try to justify that meeting these needs is extra work or that by doing so these people are being treated specially. I have been in countless situations where I’ve had to argue to have access to printed material and people have refused, because apparently making things accessible is too much extra work or they didn’t have time for that. I hear countless stories of people having accessibility issues all the time, because people didn’t think of their needs or thought it was too much work.
If we think in terms of universal accessibility and is this accessible, then we are considering everyone and including the disabled people as part of that group. But when we think about special needs, we are othering the people by calling them special and making it seem like extra work.
We are also focusing entirely on their needs.
This is further erasing disabled people down to just their needs. Oh and then people try to distance the person from their needs, because suddenly people realise that, the person isn’t just their special educational needs, they’re a person as well. So then we’re talking about people with special educational needs. Which honestly, is just a very long clunky phrase that’s not terribly specific.
It also doesn’t tell us why the person needs what they need. For example, someone says a sign language interpreter is needed, so that someone with special needs could attend a class. Here, all the emphasis is on the need, which can be converted in to an inconvenience. We’re not being told that the deaf person who needs the sign language interpreter, won’t be able to communicate or understand any of the verbal communication, in the class, if there is no sign language interpreter.
I will end by reminding people that all language choices are personal. You should always respect people’s language preferences. That said, I think it is important to understand the implications of the language we use and what impact that has on society.