Thursday, April 30, 2009

BADD 2009: Reflections On Language

The first time I remember hearing the word "cripple," I was five, and subsequently landed a punch to the face of my verbal assailant. Hauled into the time-out corner by an embarrassed teacher, I was told that punching someone was wrong. When countered this with a list of terms regularly hurled in my direction from the other students, including "retard," "metal legs," and "freak," the teacher, though visibly red-faced, remained silent.

Bright and verbal, I cursed correctly in two languages, and used my impressive vocabulary of multi syllabic adjectives, verbs, nouns and adverbs with such unyielding precision that "dictionary" soon replaced the epithetic "cripple."

Having no disabled peers with whom to relate made me aware of the nuances of the able-bodied. Their body language, facial expressions, stares, avoidance of eye contact, awkward silences and whispers in the halls became second nature and I developed a reserved armour that only those close to me could see beyond.

Undergraduate school brought me several disabled friends and less wariness. It also gave rise to new and unfamiliar verbiage. Words such as gimp, crip, TAB, and (dis)ableism, commonplace amongst persons with disabilities, offered new perspectives and ways of speaking about experiences. The slogan, "Disabled and Proud," brought tears to my eyes the first time I saw it on a banner.

Today, at almost fifty, I still wince at the word cripple and can't force myself to use gimp in conversation, despite the efforts of many to re-claim and use them more positively. Both are simply too emotionally loaded and fraught with unpleasant associations for me. Sadly, I am not alone. While words wound, they also offer possibility for healing, but not without first examining how we talk to one another and about each other, a point made by several bloggers quite cogently in the last months.

Each of us is more than the medical jargon and diagnoses attached to conditions we may live with, and we are also more than the world at large often believes us to be. If we want to be disabled and proud, we must empower ourselves and those who will follow and celebrate our arts, dance, music, sports, sexuality, community and all other aspects of humanity.


  1. Great post. I really was thinking about how when I played wheelchair tennis I got used to referring to myself as a quad (so did my other friends there) and yet I've met people who have quadriplegia who really don't like that term. There are a lot of posts in BADD today that are reminders of what you are saying- that everyone's comfort level and experiences vary within the community itself. Every year BADD happens, I think the posts really evolve more and it's pretty exciting. Thanks for being a part of this one :)

  2. What a lovely comment, Wheelie! Thanks for rolling by.

  3. How wonderful for you that you were able to find a community that suited you, eventually, and how horrid that you weren't there from the very start: I do think a lot about how the very young (both TAB and disabled) are influenced by ableism, and I hope that the more we do this, the more we talk about it, the better things will get for them/us all.

  4. Dear Never That Easy,

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. We are all influenced by ableism because it is insideous and pervasive. Most of my non-disabled friends to this day do not understand many of the attitudes/feelings they hold are precisely those that make my life and those of others with disabilities more difficult rather than less. They don't yet have the experience to understand, and many won't until they hit old age. I am acquiring more friends with disabilities of all ages now that I'm blogging, and I love the variety and perspectives. Many of those I knew during my early uni years have died, unfortunately. I hope that things improve for all of us, though as you point out that takes the willingness to speak on touchy subjects. Bloggers are generally by nature talkers from what I've seen, so much more to come and I hope that you'll feel free to come by anytime.