Rhymes With Orange takes on labeling:

The amount of writing on and public discussion of labels, of all sorts, is enormous. There’s constant contention over the way labels frame things — as in the panda’s objection above to breeding center.

Labels in socially sensitive domains — like sex, sexuality, race, ethnicity, religion, and so on — are especially fraught. There’s tension between avoiding giving offense and sounding ridiculous.

A case in point: the language of disability, that is, the language used to describe and refer to people with physical or mental disabilities. I happen to have looked at the Oxford A-Z of English Usage (ed. by Jeremy Butterfield, 2007) on the matter yesterday — with some personal interest, since I have somewhat limited use of my right hand.

(The Oxford A-Z is a small, short paperback that tries to cover not only points of grammar and usage in a narrow sense, but also spelling, pronunciation, punctuation, and more, including word choices in socially sensitive domains.)

First, an entry for differently abled, which the guide (p. 40) says

was first proposed in the 1980s as an alternative to disabled, handicapped, etc. on the grounds that it gave a more positive message and so avoided discrimination towards people with disabilities. The term has gained little currency, however, and has been criticized as both over-euphemistic and condescending. The accepted term in general use is still disabled.

So far so good. I can tell people that I am “somewhat disabled”.

Then comes a longer entry on disability, the language of (pp. 41-43), where (among other things) we are told to try to

avoid using the + an adjective to refer to the whole group, as in the blind, the deaf and so forth. The reasoning behind this is twofold: because the humanity of people with a disability should not be circumscribed by the disability itself (‘the disability is not the person’); and that talking about people with a given disability as a group diminishes their individuality. The preferred formulation these days is ‘a person with …’ or ‘people with …’ as in people with sight problems, people with asthma, or people with disabilities.

So now I am “a person with a disability”, I guess.

I have little patience with these circumlocutions, though I appreciate that there can be subtle differences in meaning and use between different syntactic structures (as in Italiansthe Italians, Italian people, people from Italy).

Next, the guide gives a list of suggested replacements for older terms, saying that

Some of the terms below are better established than others, and some groups with disabilities favour specific words over others. These lists are offered only as a general guide.

Some of the “older terms” — like mongol — are certainly ripe for replacement (though person with Down’s syndrome is not especially felicitous). Some replacements are awkward indeed: non-disabled for able-bodied, partially sighted or visually impaired for blind. And having a disability is suggested as the “neutral term” for disabled. Sigh.

3 Responses to “Labels”

  1. Andrea Says:

    I lost my arm along time ago in a car accident at age 19. I do not get offend when someone refers to me as being disabled or handicap. I am different than most now and I accept that. I do not expect people to watch what they say around me in hopes of **not offending me** or **hurting my feelings**. Honestly I would be more offended if someone was careful about how they spoke to or about me. I do not consider handicap or disabled to be mean or hurtful words at all. I think they respectfully discribe someone with a disability perfectly.

  2. “autistic toddler” offensive? « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] visited the disability question to some degree on this blog here, in a discussion of being disabled vs. having a disability (and disabled person vs. person with a […]

  3. autistic again « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] a similar case, consider disabled person/people vs. person/people with a disability, discussed here.; the argument from disabilities rights groups is that the humanity of people with a disability […]

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