Tag Archives: Disabilism

Lose the language. Now.

Cross posted


This post is my contribution to Blogging against disabilism day.

I’ve noticed, not so much at In a Strange Land, but sometimes in comments, and more frequently in comments at The Hand Mirror, and very, very frequently elsewhere in the NZ blogosphere, ‘ableist’ language. That is, language that uses disabilities to disparage something. Very, very simple stuff, like saying that something is lame, or that someone had a bit of a spas / spaz.


Here’s why. (This is very much Disabilism 101 – old, old news to people who work with these issues all the time, but evidently, not much known elsewhere.)

You can say that x is bad just by saying, “X is bad.” But another way to say it is to compare x to something (which is also perceived is bad). So, “X is lame” carries that same connotation i.e that “X is bad.” The two statements are equivalent. And from there, it’s just a short step to: “Lame is bad. You are lame. You are bad bad bad.”

Sure, you can pick apart the language logic, and point out that of course, being lame is not something that people normally welcome, that being less than able bodied in any way is not desirable. And really, that’s all that you are saying.

Whatever. The point is, you are using language that describes the way that living breathing thinking feeling human beings are, language that describes integral parts of their every day reality, and using that language to say that some other totally unrelated thing is bad. What people with disabilities hear, and what I hear too, is language that mocks and denigrates them. It’s all so very negative, so very disempowering for people with disabilities, and yet it is so easy to avoid.

So lose it. Make the effort and find another word. Here’s some that you can use:


And instead of knocking people who have cerebal palsy, which is a heart breaking condition, by saying that you, or someone else, threw a spaz, what about talking about having a wee tanty. It carries exactly the same connotations.

English is a very rich language. Next time, instead of plumbing only the depths of disabilism, that is, language and behaviours that deny the humanity of people with disabilities, make a little effort, try being just a bit sensitive, and mine the rich resources of English instead.

Recommended reading

I bought the Australian Women’s Weekly (NZ edition) today. Not my regular magazine purchase – my more usual Thursday indulgence is the new New Scientist.

I had a special reason to get the AWW (NZ) – our friends Belinda and Karl, and their son Harry, feature on pages 108 – 109. The AWW (Australian edition) has an article on autism in Australia; Belinda and Karl and Harry are the local colour in the NZ edition.

Harry has autism. Full-scale autism – not the more mild, and less easily detected, Aspergers Syndrome. Harry’s autism was identified very early on, when he was about 16 months old. Aspergers is often not identified until much later, because the indicators are much more subtle.

He’s a fantastic kid, despite the evident behavioural difficulties. He’s cuddly with his parents, he responds to direct conversation, he participates in games. I have seen him play very successfully with my two younger daughters, with all three of them totally focused on a model ship and all the little pieces and ‘men’ that could be moved about on it. On the same visit, when we all went off to visit Kelly Tarlton’s, he was very keen to sit with my elder daughter – he thought she was lovely (she is, of course). He responds to people, he’s talkative, and more than just talkative, he’s communicative.

And like both his parents, he’s very, very smart. He’s no legendary idiot savant – he’s just a bright kid, operating through autism.

None of these things have happened by accident. Karl and Belinda worked out very early on that Harry was not in the normal spectrum of behaviour. Once the initial shock passed, they set out to find out more and more about autism, and about how to work with their son. They have worked extraordinarily hard with him, using charts, photos, rewards, punishments (such as no more computer time), written words, endless repetitions of basic behaviours, to help him to learn how to communicate. Their goal is not to change their son, but to help him to be able to function in our society.

They have spend a huge amount of money doing this – around $200,000. Harry is at school now, with a Department of Education funded teacher aide. The particular grant is an Ongoing and Reviewable Resources Scheme grant, known as an ORRS grant.

Here’s the real problem. Because Belinda and Karl have worked so hard with Harry, because they have poured in the time and effort and money now, his behaviour is manageable, to the extent that funding will most likely be withdrawn at the end of 2008. At that stage, the people assessing eligibility for ORRS grants will visit Harry again, assess his behaviour, and decide whether the grant should be renewed. But Belinda and Karl have worked, and continue to work, so hard with Harry that his behaviour is much improved, so he is unlikely to get the grant again. Yet given the nature of autism, which is not ‘curable’, if the funding for a teacher aide is withdrawn, then Harry is likely to be unable to function in a mainstream classroom.

It’s a lose : lose scenario for parents of autistic children, and parents of children with other disabilities. If they spend time and money now, then in future years, instead of getting assistance so that their children can be educated, and become self-supporting citizens, they will have to pay all over again. If they had simply not bothered, then funding for teacher aides would have been available.

This is a real case where a fence at the top of the cliff would save so much grief in future years.

I salute our friends Karl and Belinda. Autism destroys relationships – the main Australian based article in the AWW gives a break-up rate of 87%. Belinda and Karl have been through some very rough times, but they are still together, and still there together for their children. And their son is a lovely lad.


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