Talking about disability: words matter

Talking about disability can still be often difficult, today. When dealing with this topic, you face embarrassment, discomfort, as if, even just pronouncing “that” word you could bring bad luck upon yourself.

For centuries, people thought that disability (and diseases in general) were, somehow, linked to a “fault” by who was affected by it, a sort of stigma marking someone to keep away. This resulted in the almost total social exclusion of disabled people, hidden by their families (or thrown out of their own home), as if they were a “stain” to hide from the community.

Nowadays, luckily, this prejudice has been largely overcome, at least in the most culturally and economically advanced countries (it’s not by chance that these two things generally go together): there are laws ensuring equal dignity and rights in all the fields to disabled people, from work to personal and private life, there’s a growing awareness about accessibility and need to invest more resources on it for the benefit of the entire community.

Talking about disability

Nevertheless, there are still unfair, and often (even accidentally) offensive habits, when it comes to talk about disability or, even more, deal with someone affected by a disability, both motoric, sensory or psychic. Pity (not intended as the Virgilian pietas), discomfort, inappropriate question even from perfect strangers (“What do you exactly have?”, “Why do you walk this way?”, “Isn’t there anything you can do to…?”), tendency to look at disabled people as if they were children, even though they’re adult. But also, levity, habit to use terms associated to a condition of disability (e. g. “handicapped”, “spastic”, “mongoloid”, and so on) as insults, to deride someone else’s physical or cognitive traits, or to consider a motoric or sensory disabled person as she was necessarily “retarded” (here we have the insult again…) or, however, losing her marbles.

How can we overtake all of this and establish a correct vision, a real disability culture? Two answers come up to my mind for first: school and media.

diversityChildren have a natural inclination not to discriminating the “diverse” ones, unless an adult they trust teaches them to do it: we all have seen children different for culture, race, conditions playing together without any issue, because what they see in the other one is simply someone to play with, not a stranger, a different skin colour, a disability. It’s essential that school helps strengthening this natural inclination to include, promoting continuous exchanging, living together and sharing among able-bodied and disabled children.

mass mediaAlso mass  media can and must have an important role in establishing the disability culture, first of all using the right terms and manner when talking about disability: less “pain TV” and disabled people shown as they were caricatures or freaks, more disabled people in tv shows (even as presenters, in addition to being hosts or spectators, why not?), in movies, commercials, on glossy magazines’ covers and in TV series. Not necessarily as the “poor sods” or the “heroes”. Nor as the “good guys” by definition. We can’t take for granted that a disabled person is good, generous, helpful with everyone or, in one word, better than a non-disabled one. Disabled people, just like anyone else, can also be “asshole”, bad, vindictive, selfish and more.

Simply because the disabled people are (precisely) people, with qualities and lacks, as everyone else. People who live a particular condition, for sure. But people, not better or lesser beings.

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