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November 9, 2007

Finding the right word - re-inventing language

“The British civil rights movement has rejected the term ‘people with disabilities’, as it implies that the disabling effect rests within the individual person rather than from society.”

Patriarchy in the UK:
The Language of Disability
By Laurence Clark and Stephen Marsh: 2002


I was reading the Ontario plan for accessible transportation which includes this definition:

Disability - means a) any degree of physical disability, infirmity, malformation or disfigurement that is caused by bodily injury, birth defect or illness and, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, includes diabetes mellitus, epilepsy, a brain injury, any degree of paralysis, amputation, lack of physical co-ordination, blindness or visual impediment, deafness or hearing impediment, muteness or speech impediment, or physical reliance on a guide dog or other animal or on a wheelchair or other remedial appliance or device, b) a condition of mental impairment or a developmental disability.

The definition has a lot of loaded words (highlighted by me). Not to mention circular reasoning. I wonder how the person who wrote this could possibly understand what is needed in terms of accessible transportation. A person who thinks of ‘disabled’ folk as malformed and impaired wouldn’t be likely to be very simpatico. The writer is starting from the wrong premise. It should be

Barrier – means any arbitrary architectural, technological, societal, intellectual (and more) circumstance which prevents people from participating fully in day-to-day activities.

Sometimes "handicapped" parking says ‘accessible parking’. This is exactly the thing – focus on the circumstances and not the person.

I guess we’re conditioned to think in the same way that the Ontario definition demonstrates. This has led to all kinds of bizarre linguistic contortions. Disabled access is kind of oxymoronic – what is really meant is unlimited access. Ditto for handicapped washroom. It should be unobstructed. Or even just washroom, and to be clear about what’s going on sometimes obstructed washroom. Barrier free is a useful term –very neutral, descriptive and inclusive of mothers with strollers and people with artificial hips. But this ain't easy - an otherwse educated woman looked at me like I ad 3 heads when I used "barrier free".
You’re probably thinking this is a distinction without a difference. But sometimes it’s really important. Not The Nova Scotians with Disabilities Act but An Act to Enable all Nova Scotians. Not Handicapped Washroom but Enabled Washroom.
I am so sick of “person with a disability”. Nine syllables which don’t exactly trip off the tongue. As if disability is a little cloud to be carried around that turns good into bad. “Person who faces barriers”. That saves a syllable and puts the problem where it belongs. With the step at the restaurant, the PA system at the Metro Center, the door at the cell phone store, the counter at city hall. We're not the problem!
Where is Stephen Colbert when you need him?
Current language is inadequate for folks who are usually referred to collectively as “disabled. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to adapt language to suit a particular situation:
  • She needs a Braille menu
  • I need a room with a wheel-in shower
  • He needs written as well as spoken information
But there is the group known as “the disabled” which is convenient shorthand for a complicated and diverse subset of the population. It may be unnecessary, but people will continue to use it for its succinctness. I am looking for a substitute that is sufficiently new to get attention, short to be easily remembered, and obvious enough so that it doesn’t need explaining. It identfies a situation in which some cannot participate fully because planning for the activity did not contemplate their needs. The focus is on the circumstance, not the participant.
This new word wll describe restaurants without Braille menus, elevators too small for strollers, schools with second floor classrooms, dangerous curb cuts, taverns with 30 inch doors. Things are mentioned, never people. Here are some examples:
  • Outclusive – The outclusive entrance at the Nova Scotia Legislature is a sad commentary on government.
  • Unabled – The Human Rights Commission does not give a hoot about the unabled.
  • Hindered
  • Thwarted
I would love to have your ideas, comments and suggestions. Please leave them below, or email them to me.
Warren Reed
Person facing barriers

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