I recently discovered a feminist speech by an actor I admire, Dr. Mayim Bialik, also known as Dr. Amy Farrah-Fowler on The Big Bang Theory. It is an awesome speech, delivered with a touch of humor. She even brings in a little science, with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (a theory developed by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf that states that the structure of a language determines or greatly influences the modes of thought and behavior characteristic of the culture in which it is spoken.) View her captioned video here, then let’s apply what she says to people with disabilities.
We talk about intersectionality between the Disability Rights Movement and other rights movements in our culture, including Civil Rights for people of all ethnicities, the Women’s Movement, the LGBTQ Movement, and others. Sometimes we go beyond rights and talk about justice. We can learn from people who represent one of these other points of view — and often, we ourselves belong to more than one group of people for whom rights, respect and value are in question by others in society. We can relate. And we can learn from each other.
Bialik said, “We have to stop calling women ‘girls’. Why? Because it matters what we call people. Language matters. Words have meaning. And the way we use words changes the way we frame things in our mind….Words have an impact on our sub-conscious.”
Here are some of Bialik’s observations about language and respect, mixed in with some of my own.
- How can you tell the difference between a girl and a woman? If she has a high school diploma, a child, a degree, a loan or a mortgage, you can be pretty certain she’s a woman. Calling her a girl is not just disrespectful, it is demeaning and implies she is less than an adult. People with disabilities are often treated as children, too. We need to stop calling women, girls and adults with disabilities, kids.
- Bialik gives a number of examples of ways to interrupt demeaning language that are somewhat polite, and delivered with a smile, if you want to take that approach to advocating for adult and respectful language.
- Sometimes the disrespectful language has an unintended but negative impact on the treatment of individuals. I was with a friend of mine in a restaurant when someone came up to him, noted his wheelchair, and asked if he “got out” often. I wasn’t sure whether she meant out of a hospital (post-injury maybe?) or out into the public, but when she patted him on the head I was pretty sure it was the latter. (He directs a large, effective center, btw.)
- Some demeaning language is disability specific, and while most of us are sensitive to language about our own disability, we may not be as good at respectful language around other disabilities. I am afraid I have heard people who are part of the disability rights/independent living movement call others retarded or crazy. If you have a mental health disability, or a developmental disability, you may have even more to say about respectful language and I hope you will comment here.
- Remember that the way things are is not the way they must be. Let’s not take on the biases and judgments about others that have been in place since historical times when women — and people with disabilities — weren’t even allowed into the public sphere.
As Dr. Bialik says, it is up to us to change this narrative. Our active advocacy for the respect and value for all people is a key part of our independent living philosophy.
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