International Day of Persons with Disabilities

That was yesterday, December 3rd, using the rather awkward name recommended by the UN. And the Comics Kingdom (King Features) blog offered a set of comics for the occasion, most of which I didn’t find particularly funny, though I liked this Bizarro:

(If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 3 in this strip — see this Page.)

V cripple, Adj crippled, N cripple. The cartoon has the V cripple, which seems not to have (yet) picked up the opprobium piled on the Adj crippled, and (worse) the N cripple (and its slang short form crip).

NOAD2 on cripple v.

cause (someone) to become unable to move or walk properly: (as adj. crippling): a crippling disease.  • cause severe and disabling damage to (a machine): over-lubrication might well lead to piston seizure, crippling the engine.  • cause a severe and almost insuperable problem for: developing countries are crippled by their debts.

And cripple n.

dated or offensive a person who is unable to walk or move properly because of disability or injury to their back or legs.  • a person with a severe limitation of a specified kind: an emotional cripple. USAGE: The word cripple has long been in use to refer to ‘a person unable to walk due to illness or disability’ and is recorded as early as ad 950. In the 20th century, the term acquired offensive connotations and has now been largely replaced by broader terms such as ‘disabled person.’

In a development repeated many times in various socially dodgy domains of meaning, the stigma associated with the referent, in this case the affected people, came to be associated with the linguistic expression, here the noun cripple; the word became tainted, a kind of slur, and had to be replaced when no insult was intended.

In any case, the appeal to the narrowness of cripple is a red herring. Ordinarily, such narrowness would be remedied by simply extending the use of a word, in this case, by extending cripple to cover limitations and inabilities other than those affecting the back or legs. In particular, the verb would be extended to limitations on the use of (for instance) the hands, as in the Bizarro cartoon or in the case of my own crippled right hand, and then the noun would be extended as well. Ever since I lost the full use of my right hand and arm, I’ve had no problem referring to myself as a cripple, but so many people are distressed by that usage that I’ve shifted to saying that I’m handicapped or disabled. Alas, it turns out that these have themselves gotten caught up in the stigma cycle.

N handicap, V handicap, Adj handicapped. NOAD2 on these items:

handicap n. a condition that markedly restricts a person’s ability to function physically, mentally, or socially.  • a circumstance that makes progress or success difficult: a criminal conviction is a handicap and a label that may stick forever.

handicap v. act as an impediment to: lack of funding has handicapped the development of research.  • place (someone) at a disadvantage: without a good set of notes you will handicap yourself when it comes to exams.

handicapped adj. having a condition that markedly restricts one’s ability to function physically, mentally, or socially: a special school for handicapped children | (as plural noun the handicapped): a home for the handicapped. USAGE: Handicapped and handicap were the standard terms used to refer to a person’s mental or physical disability for much of the 20th century. This began to change in the 1980s, and disabled and disability are now the more common and preferred terms, though handicapped is still frequently used in phrases such as handicapped-accessible and handicapped parking.

Once again, I had no problem with these terms as applied to me — I have a handicap, I’m handicapped — but it was not to be; these terms too had become tainted and were seen as slurs. So: on to disability and disabled: I have a disability (actually, several: there’s also osteoarthritis and asthma), I’m disabled. Since my condition continues to be stigmatized, I have no doubt that the current labels will eventually turn into slurs (“What’s the matter with you, loser? You fuckin’ disabled?”), and something new will be needed.

We are, in fact, partly on that road already, thanks to objections to disabled (as a predicate Adj, as in They are disabled; as a prenominal Adj, as in disabled people, or, especially, in the elliptical nouning the disabled ‘disabled people (as a group)’)  — objections that are based, so far as I can tell, not on unpleasant tinges in actual usage, but on theoretical objections to Adjs (predicate, prenominal, or especially nouned) for reference to people. The idea seems to be that such uses are essentializing, attributing a definitional property to people, rather than referring merely to a concomitant state. For conditions that limit or restrict people’s ability to function, the mantra is:

The disability is not the person.

So I should not say I’m disabled, or I’m a disabled person, or I’m one of the disabled. Instead, I should say I have a disability, or I’m someone (or a person, or a man) with a disability. (The proscription and prescription would apply equally to I’m crippled and I’m handicapped, even if there were no other objections to them.)

This position turns a connotational subtlety (of little or no relevance in many contexts) into a rigid claim about the semantics of adjectival constructions, a claim that I believe to be simply false. But the position has been so widely disseminated that many now see things like I’m disabled — I usually say I’m significantly disabled, to convey the importance of my disabilities in the context of the conversation — as offensive, in fact necessarily so. I must not say that; it’s a slur on people with disabilities.

I really don’t know what to do: I’m disabled is compact and semantically impeccable, but if substantial numbers of people have bought into the loony idea that the expression is necessarily offensive, should I avoid it out of politeness to them? It’s like the problem with picnic, where a fair number of people have bought into the totally false idea that it’s offensive, because it derives from pick a nig(ger) (worse, apparently not everyone who finds it offensive knows the false etymology). For them, of course, it is offensive, hurtful.

I’m not willing to let the crazies win on every occasion — I’m adamant on picnic — but sometimes I’ll bow to widespread belief, however fallacious: like a great many others, I’ll probably never use the Adj niggardly again, except to quote it as an example.

At the moment I’m adamant on disabled. But a great many institutions, including the UN, have bowed to the crazies, and I might eventually be overwhelmed by public opinion. Meanwhile, avoidance of disabled provides most of the story behind the very awkward official name of yesterday’s observance,

(IDoPwD) International Day of Persons with Disabilities

— rather than International Disabled People’s Day, or even the very snappy International Disabled Day (only an uncooperative pedant would insist on complaining that a day cannot be disabled). At least four alternatives are attested for IDoPwD:

(IDoPwaD) International Day of Persons with (a) Disability [using a Sg N, either M(ass) disability or C(ount) a disability]

(IDD) International Disabilities/Disability Day

The (IDD) alternatives are compact and snappy, though they do elide people from the occasion, suggesting that the day is about the causes and treatment of disabilities — like Word Diabetes Day (November 14th) and World Heart Day (September 12th), about heart disease and stroke — rather than about disabled people.

In any case, there are no alternatives with disabled in them — no doubt a consequence of the campaign against adjectives.

People vs. persons. The other oddity of IDoPwD is that it uses the administrative-sounding persons, rather than the more natural people. As it turns out, both IDoPwD and IDoPwaD have attested alternatives with people, so the official literature doesn’t absolutely insist on persons, though it does prefer it.

In people vs. persons we see another theoretically based objection — to people, on the grounds that it’s (claimed to be) a collective and not a plural, and so should not be used with plural reference. The root of the objection seems to be that people has no morphological sign of the plural. But in its syntax it’s clearly Pl (note its subject-verb agreement), and the word has been used with Pl modifiers (including numerical expressions) at least back to Chaucer.

Still, the objection arose in the mid-19th century and then had tremendous currency in US journalism. When I worked on a newspaper in the late 1950s, our local style book (derived from the Associated Press) insisted that people could not be used with numerical modifiers (a thousand persons, never a thousand people).

The whole absurd convoluted story is summarized nicely in MWDEU (in the entry people, persons), where it’s reported that around 1980 the AP style manual had shifted to prescribing people for all plural uses.

At this point, persons now strikes many people as stiff, very formal, and old-fashioned, but it’s not unacceptable. In any case, IDoPwD with persons sounds like just the sort of thing a bureaucrat would write.


One Response to “International Day of Persons with Disabilities”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Peter Korn on Facebook:

    I am actually increasingly seeing folks with disabilities using the phrase “I am disabled”, in the context I am disabled by the way society builds things. Things around me are disabling because they don’t support my use of a chair or have speech built-in because I’m blind.

    My response:

    That’s a true passive V, not an Adj. And of course there are many disabled folks like me, who aren’t disabled by the way society builds things, but still need to ask for patience or forbearance or whatever from other people. (Not always forthcoming. I have learned never to try to walk anywhere in downtown Palo Alto around 5 p.m. on a Friday, even with my very visible cane: I’d just be threatened by cars whose impatient drivers won’t give a cripple a chance to cross the street. Seriously unnerving.)

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