Ableist language

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Ableist language

Post by Phil White » Wed Sep 07, 2016 8:09 pm

Those of you who are currently following the pantomime that passes for politics in the UK may have caught on to the self-righteous storm that has erupted from the Labour teacup in the wake of Owen Smith’s reference to Jeremy Corbyn as a “lunatic”. His precise words were:
We’ve got to get two million people who actually voted Tory, 12 months ago, to vote Labour, in 106 seats.
And what you won’t get from me, is some, you know, lunatic at the top of the Labour party, you’ll have someone who tries to form a coherent narrative about what’s wrong with Britain.
Now don’t get me wrong. I have no time for Owen Smith. I think he is a loathsome, opportunist creature that barely merits the designation “human being”. But the massive, outraged response to his use of the term “lunatic” on social media and some of the non-mainstream blogs and media took me by surprise. “Lunatic”, along with “cretin”, “moron”, “idiot” and many others, are “ableist”.
One of the more sober critiques is on TheCanary: http://www.thecanary.co/2016/08/24/owen ... ins-audio/.

Okay, so most of the members here who have endured my posts over the years will probably be able to guess where I stand on the careful use of language. Fact is, I have been very conscious of sexist and racist language in particular since way back in the late seventies. I was arguing the case for “chair” when most people thought it laughable. I quickly dropped large numbers of designations for ethnic groups, people of different sexual orientation, people with disabilities and so on from my vocabulary. We all used them back then, and nowadays we are all keenly aware that they are deeply offensive slurs. I was pretty quick on the uptake and still generally respond quickly when I realize that someone finds a term I use offensive. Quite frankly, it is mere politeness. I don't always get it right, but I try.

But “lunatic”? “Idiot”? I do find this difficult. While I have long avoided “cretin”, and to a lesser extent “moron”, I have difficulty with the idea that “lunatic”, in the sense and context in which Smith used it, is “ableist”.

Of course, there is a way in which “lunatic” can be used that is deeply offensive to people who suffer with mental health issues, namely when it is used as a designation for those people. We no longer talk of “lunatic asylums”, and the term “lunatic” has been removed from most, if not all current UK legislation, and this is a good thing. It is a deeply disparaging term that was used to isolate, label and deprecate entire groups of people. It would not cross my mind to refer to the patients in a psychiatric institution as “lunatics”, and I suspect that this is true for the vast majority of people.

But this is not what Owen Smith was doing. He was using the metaphor in order to call into question Corbyn’s facility for rational decision making. This is, of course, the common meaning of the word in modern English. Calling Jeremy Corbyn a "lunatic" is offensive to Jeremy Corbyn in the same way that it would be if he had called him "stupid" or an "ignoramus". And by association, it is insulting to those who have supported Corbyn. But it is not "ableist". The lack of decent residential care for those with mental health issues is ableist. Cuts to benefits to those who are affected by mental health issues is ableist. A failure to provide wheelchair ramps in public buildings is ableist. The use of the "lunatic" metaphor is not, in my opinion, ableist.

Now it is argued that such metaphorical usage that harks back to and reverberates with older, disparaging meanings is, in itself, disparaging to a particular group of people, even if the words were not actually directed at that group.

Let’s step back a moment. After thinking about the issue for a while, I spent some time trawling the Web for articles on “ableist” language. And there are a lot. Some would have it that if you describe someone as “paralyzed by fear”, this is ableist. As is “deaf to any rational argument”. Or “blind to the facts”. Indeed, pretty well all body metaphors are perceived by some as being ableist. I even saw an argument that the term “a fat lie” was “sizeist”.

Yes, the regulars here can see where this is going. For me, the most interesting arguments were that we need to avoid terms like “blind fury” (which happens to be my handle on a couple of other forums), “insight”, “I see” in the sense of “I understand” and no end of other sight-related metaphors. This made me laugh. At least until I thought about it and it made me angry. Very angry.

Do you know something? I actually (slightly) object to being referred to as “visually impaired”, which is the most widespread “acceptable” term nowadays. It stresses the fact that I have an “impairment” far more than ever the term “blind” does. Even worse is the term “VI”, as in “the VI community” (although many blind and partially sighted people choose to identify themselves as “visually impaired” or “VI”, which is fine - I happen to disagree, but that's fine too). I am blind, or more accurately, as they put it on my certificate “severely sight impaired (blind)”. I do have a disability. And there are things I cannot now do that sighted people can do easily. I cope with it more or less well, depending largely on the state of the weather and the mood my dog is in. What I do not need is still more euphemisms for the disability that I have or the patronizing assumption that I am too stupid to realize the difference between offensive language and good, useful metaphorical language.

It has been an eye-opener for me to spend time with people who have been totally blind since birth and listen to them using language such as “I watched a film last night”, or to have me tell them exactly what colour a ceanothus bloom is. There is a glittering array of metaphors in the language derived from vision, the ones in this paragraph being shining examples. Are we to drop these from our vocabulary because these blind people (poor lambs) find them offensive or are incapable of understanding the meaning of them? To me at least, it is blindingly obvious that disabled people find it far more discomfiting to seepeople tiptoe over eggshells, watching their every word in an attempt to avoid the appearance that they are being insensitive about someone's disability. This is far more patronizing and places the focus firmly on the disability and not the person.

For me at least, I would be far more interested in being able to get a national newspaper or magazine in Braille (which I cannot), or to see platform announcements reinstated at my local train stations, rather than read the patronizing drivel written by self-appointed protectors of these poor disabled people in respect of what may or may not be offensive. I am confronted with quite enough verbal abuse on a day-to-day basis (my favourite one recently was “Look what you are doing with that stick, you blind c**t”) to worry one iota about people using perfectly good visual metaphors that relate to a sense that I have largely lost now.

But to return to Owen Smith and his “lunatic” metaphor. Should I be upset by this? The answer is yes. But not because the language is “ableist”. It is not. It is metaphorical, and this metaphorical use has been the only use in English for many years now. I am upset because once again Owen Smith has dragged the political debate to the level of playground insults. But what can you expect from a benighted ignoramus?

Point out the errors of my ways. Show me where my thinking is obscure or even opaque. Enlighten me if you can. Explain to me where my vision of an intelligent and careful use of language breaks down. I challenge you.
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Re: Ableist language

Post by tony h » Wed Nov 30, 2016 2:52 pm

Your piece has set me thinking and in the main I agree with you but wonder whether there will always be an opportunity to take offence and maybe people should develop more of a thick skin and an ability to seriously laugh it off. Obviously if offence is meant then no amount political correctness will hide the offence.

A couple of PSs.
1. When young (Iam avoiding a gender specific term) I was part of a group that people called the lunatics partly because we went for walks in the middle of the night and partly because we did it at the time of the full moon.

2, I have recently re-read Saki's Tobermore about a cat that is taught to speak (English of course) so when I read your quote
Phil White wrote: you blind c**t"
I did wonder what Saki would have written about a sighted one. I am now going to try and forget that thought.
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With the right context almost anything can sound appropriate.

Re: Ableist language

Post by Phil White » Wed Nov 30, 2016 4:02 pm

Your piece has set me thinking and in the main I agree with you but wonder whether there will always be an opportunity to take offence and maybe people should develop more of a thick skin and an ability to seriously laugh it off. Obviously if offence is meant then no amount political correctness will hide the offence.
The issues raised by this sort of stuff are staggeringly complex, and largely unanswerable. In particular in the UK, we live in a world of "identity politics", and herein lies a probably intractable contradiction. Most minority or underrepresented or oppressed groups campaign on the basis of the need to be accepted as equals in the society in which they live, but the very campaign highlights the differences and inequality of needs. On the one hand, disabled people, for instance, are campaigning for a society in which disability is not regarded as being in any way peculiar or strange, but to achieve this goal, they delineate themselves as a distinct group with distinct needs.

Once a month I walk with a blind walking group and on Sunday I was talking with a man, I guess in his forties, who lost his sight completely about five years ago. Somehow we got on to the subject of crossing roads, and our sensitivities and experiences are very similar. I am fortunate in that I still have enough residual sight to make out the shape of a car a few yards away, but Harry (let's call him that for the sake of a name), can see nothing whatsoever. But both of us hate it when a car stops to let us cross the road in front of them. We both know what happens. I am standing by the road with my cane and I hear a car coming, so I wait. I hear it slow down and come to a halt near me. There is then a pause in which the driver waves me across (I assume) and flashes his lights (I assume). At some point, I hear a voice, but cannot hear the words because of the noise of the car engine. Then someone yells "it's safe to cross". Harry has been hit seven times in situations like that and I have been hit three times, twice by cyclists overtaking the stopped car on the inside and once by an impatient motorcyclist who has overtaken the stopped car.

Neither Harry nor I will cross roads until we are certain in our own minds that both sides of the road are absolutely clear, and so we end up having arguments with the drivers. "Cross the road." "No, please pass through. It's easier for me." "The road's clear." "No, please go through." ...

Problem is, of course, the drivers are actually being very kind. It's just that they do not understand that they are actually making life harder or more dangerous. I don't want to upset someone who is being kind, but I also do not want to abandon my own responsibility for my own safety. It is also an issue of taking control of my own life.

A few months ago, I was waiting on the pavement outside my house, complete with white cane, and a woman came up to me, grabbed hold of my arm, whisked me across the road and said "have a good day."

I replied "I'm sure I shall, but can you take me back across the road? I'm waiting for a taxi."

Over the years, I have learned to be gracious in accepting help from kindly folks who see me waiting to cross roads. I rarely actually need help; I am merely a lot slower and more cautious than sighted folks - and probably a fair amount safer as a result. But I no longer see accepting help as an encroachment on my independence.

Not a day goes by when I am not staggered by the brute ignorance and rudeness of some people, and barely a day goes by when I do not get verbal abuse in one form or another. Equally, hardly a day goes by when I am not charmed and lifted by the small kindnesses that people show me, and the willingness of people to help me, for instance in a supermarket, when I ask them.

You see, on the one hand, I do not wish to identify or define myself as "visually impaired". This is not what makes me the person I am. And yet, I am constantly faced with battles small and large that highlight the fact that my needs are different from those of the majority. And to get anything done in respect of things like accessible communications from government authorities, banks and so on, or in respect of safe crossing places over busy roads, I have to band together with those who face the same problems. We have to stand as a group and draw attention to the fact that our needs are different. It is an uncomfortable contradiction that leads to the bizarre excesses of the kind I outlined in the original post.

Yes, Tony, there is always the opportunity to take offence. It is quite possible to take offence at being helped and at not being helped. Both are annoying when they are inappropriate. I feel sorry for sighted folks. Whatever they do, it will be wrong...

But I have wittered enough.
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Re: Ableist language

Post by Erik_Kowal » Wed Nov 30, 2016 6:49 pm

Thanks for that detailed discussion, Phil. I had not really thought very much about the paradoxes regarding normality/abnormality that abound for people who (for whatever reason) find themselves societally marginalized, so your perspective was illuminating to read.

I suspect most people will not go too far wrong if they bear in mind that everybody is a human being with feelings, and if they're therefore prepared to politely ask a person how they would prefer to be addressed or described if they're not sure (provided they can do so without too much risk of embarrassing the person in front of a third party).
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Re: Ableist language

Post by Phil White » Thu Dec 01, 2016 1:11 am

Erik_Kowal wrote:I suspect most people will not go too far wrong if they bear in mind that everybody is a human being with feelings, and if they're therefore prepared to politely ask a person how they would prefer to be addressed or described if they're not sure (provided they can do so without too much risk of embarrassing the person in front of a third party).
"Phil, how would you prefer me to refer to you?"
"Do what?"
"Well, do you prefer to be called 'blind' or 'visually impaired'?"
"Do what?"
"Well, if I introduce you to someone, for instance, would you prefer me to say 'this is my friend Phil, he's blind' or 'this is my friend Phil, he's visually impaired'?"
"Well, now that you put it like that, I'd prefer you to say 'this is Phil, he's a linguist'".
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Re: Ableist language

Post by Erik_Kowal » Thu Dec 01, 2016 1:13 am

Phil White wrote:
Erik_Kowal wrote:I suspect most people will not go too far wrong if they bear in mind that everybody is a human being with feelings, and if they're therefore prepared to politely ask a person how they would prefer to be addressed or described if they're not sure (provided they can do so without too much risk of embarrassing the person in front of a third party).
"Phil, how would you prefer me to refer to you?"
"Do what?"
"Well, do you prefer to be called 'blind' or 'visually impaired'?"
"Do what?"
"Well, if I introduce you to someone, for instance, would you prefer me to say 'this is my friend Phil, he's blind' or 'this is my friend Phil, he's visually impaired'?"
"Well, now that you put it like that, I'd prefer you to say 'this is Phil, he's a linguist'".
QED.
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Re: Ableist language

Post by BonnieL » Thu Dec 01, 2016 8:10 pm

Phil White wrote:A few months ago, I was waiting on the pavement outside my house, complete with white cane, and a woman came up to me, grabbed hold of my arm, whisked me across the road and said "have a good day."

I replied "I'm sure I shall, but can you take me back across the road? I'm waiting for a taxi."
LOL - that's hilarious! You must be nicer than I am - I would have been yelling at her. I had a similar (tho not equivalent) experience a few years ago. I tripped & fell flat on my face. I was stunned so was still lying there when a couple of men rushed up to me, pulled me to my feet, & helped me into the building. That would have been OK, but they were much taller than I am & they were half dragging me with my arms up & my feet barely touching the ground. It hurt! I kept saying I could walk but they weren't listening. Sometimes there are bad Samaritans. :(

Because I do fall on occasion (am I balance impaired or just a klutz?), I do worry about this happing again - it wasn't fun. At least the last time I fell there wasn't room for anyone to pick me up. But this time I could say it wasn't really my fault - a fellow train passenger had his feet out in the aisle & I didn't see him.

As for the original post about "lunatic" - I would think it would only be "ableist" if he were indeed insane. But would it have been considered "ableist" had he said wing nut or whack job? Those don't imply mental illness so much as just run-of-the-mill craziness.
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Re: Ableist language

Post by Phil White » Thu Dec 01, 2016 11:52 pm

BonnieL wrote:As for the original post about "lunatic" - I would think it would only be "ableist" if he were indeed insane. But would it have been considered "ableist" had he said wing nut or whack job? Those don't imply mental illness so much as just run-of-the-mill craziness.
Sorry, Bonnie, according to some, you can't have "crazy" either. In fact, it sometimes appears to me that the merest suggestion that having any mental, physical or sensory impairment of any kind is in any way undesirable is taboo.

As for "whack job", I have never heard it, but I like it. I am sure it is utterly ableist.

For me, "wing nuts" are people with sticky-out ears, so it must be appearanceist.

But I can relate to your tale. My friends in the walking group are unanimous. We all hate being grabbed and dragged, however well-intentioned it may be.
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Re: Ableist language

Post by tony h » Fri Dec 02, 2016 12:55 am

The thought has meandered into my mind that needing help, offering help, refusing help, and giving help are part of what makes a society a nice place to be. "Let me help you with the door", "could you pass the salt?", ""could I get a lift with you", "I could pop in and feed your cat". And for these the matter of how to provide the aid is well understood. And when it isn't some advice is given that makes it all clear, as in "this one fastens at the front".

When dealing with disability there is the wish to help but knowing how is the difficult part. A number of years ago I saw a blind man getting out of a train and I went to help. After a brief introduction and ascertain that he did not know where to go I took him by the arm and started to wrest him in the right direction. After a few steps he asked to stop and said to me "you are very kind and I would like to tell you, if you would like to know, how best to help a blind person."

Now with neurological problems of my own that give me spasms and disrupt my balance I find people offering me help. I take the same opportunity (when I can) to provide advice on helping me.

So what did he tell me, I don't remember it all but it included:
- ask how to attach : which arm and how - many seem to like to hold on to a horizontal arm
- changes in walking surface especially steps and say whether they are up or down
- describe the area especially lanes on a road that are being crossed
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With the right context almost anything can sound appropriate.

Re: Ableist language

Post by BonnieL » Fri Dec 02, 2016 2:09 am

Phil White wrote:
BonnieL wrote:As for "whack job", I have never heard it, but I like it. I am sure it is utterly ableist.

For me, "wing nuts" are people with sticky-out ears, so it must be appearanceist.
I looked them up. Whack job (also spelled wack job) & wing nut (also spelled wingnut) are Americanisms. Maybe Canadianisms, too, but don't know. For someone who lives as close to the border as I do, you'd think I'd be more aware of how Canadians talk.

Words like this tend to come up when we discuss political people who are far to the right & occasionally those far to the left.
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Re: Ableist language

Post by Phil White » Fri Dec 02, 2016 2:25 am

Indeed, Tony, it's all very simple if people just think a bit and take their cue from the person being helped. It doesn't help if you are British and manage to get self-conscious on your own in a lift with a mirror in it.
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