Sample Discussion

To get a little taste of this course, read the following  fragment of a long discussion about  "language" that took place last semester. Some of the responses were edited/shortened.

The question was:
Why has it been so hard for our community to agree on "one word" to name ourselves?

The readings mentioned in the responses are:
Mary Johnson's article, "Sticks and Stones" - first appeared in the Disability Rag and is included in
Nelson, Jack A. ed., The Disabled, the Media and the Information Age. Greenwood Press, 1994.
Cheryl. Marie Wade's poem "I'm Not One Of The" - has appeared in many publications.
Cheryl Marie Wade also recites the poem in her Video: Here - A Poetry Performance
(See: GUIDE, Course Materials)

21-MAR-97 2:03 Dave Kallman

The range of what’s covered under the label "people with disabilities" is very large and non-homogenous. Just including the people with "obvious" disabilities, there’s  a large range: e.g., mobility, vision, auditory, speech disabilities. And even within each one of these categories, there are wide differences in level of disability. The Johnson article mentions the term "survivor." People who have had cancer  like the term. It doesn’t go too well with others. People, who have a lower spinal cord injury and are reasonably functional, might go for a pride word like "crip" or "gimp." Someone with a more severe disability or who’s still in the denial or anger phase of dealing with their disability, and hasn’t reached acceptance, might have trouble with any of the words.

21-MAR-97 15:59 Donna L. Ellis

We should also remember that at at least 80% of us have invisible disabilities and
don't want to be labelled by any of the terms discussed. Epilepsy is one of the most stigmatizing disabilties. Persons with psychiatric disabilities are even more stigmatized and feared. ADD/ADHD, learning disabilities, medical conditions such as lupus, cancer, brain trauma, all can be
hidden up to a point as can the other stigmatizing condition, HIV/AIDS.

It seems to me that, even though the cute names are so offensive to us, they somehow minimize the fear of the able-bodied. The really difficult issue is that these are all fear-laden situations. As much of our reading shows, the non-disabled  fear  the disabled, and the disabled are afraid of how they will be regarded.

21-MAR-97 18:09 Nadina LaSpina

Dave is right! Our minority is anything but homogeneous. The range of differences among people with disabilities is indeed enormous. Dave mentions some of the major ways in which we differ - type of disability, severity of disability, length of time the individual has been disabled. Donna adds another major division: visible vs. invisible disabilities. I'm sure we can think of other differences.

Donna also touches on the role that "fear" plays in the relations between disabled and nondisabled
(something we will have a lot more to say later), and very accurately points out that those cutesy
names "minimize the fear of the able-bodied." Indeed, euphemisms are always used in that way, to mask what is considered fearful, harsh, ugly, dirty. So the abundance of euphemisms really tells us that people regard disability as "horrible and unmentionable."

Please keep talking. I want to hear what the rest of you have to say.

22-MAR-97 18:39 Dana Mithaug
I really identified with this article as we had just had a similar discussion in our own disability studies class at Teachers College.  Debate surfaced on whether "Disability Studies" was another negative label, and appropriate for our goals. And that maybe in twenty years the term "Disability" will be taboo, and do we really want to encourage negative images. And if we were as a group, wanting to be noticed: why not call ourselves "Gimp Studies". And on and on............

I guess I’m so tired of listening to all of our bickering on what name should define us. In the end I
always want to shout, "OK, we are all different. Let us get on with it!"  I know, this is really simplistic. And easy for me to demand that we just all agree on one term, transform this one term into a source of pride, and move on. I see the emerging disability culture and movement as very similar to the civil rights movement. The word ‘Black’ became acceptable when it was used as a word of beauty and power. I think the same can be done with the word ‘Disability’. And it will stop being negative, and become a word of power and beauty if we all agree to use it- together.

23-MAR-97 11:59 Nadina LaSpina

Oh, Dana, I know! I have felt many times that same impatience when people in the group argued
about what word is best. What you and I (and many others, I hope) are looking for is a way to express "pride" in who we are. We get impatient when we hear the bickering going on in our own community because we see it as a sign that we're not there yet. Yes, any word can be made into a "word of  beauty and power"  if it is used by enough people with pride.

Words acquire their meaning when they are used. The only reason words are "negative" is because
they have been used in ways that are negative. As long as people see disability as a terrible tragedy,
as their worst nightmare, they will think all words that have to do with disability are negative.
Attempts to find a "positive" word then are nothing but ways to cover up and minimize the fear(as
Donna said earlier in this discussion). So called "positive" words appeal to those(nondisabled
people)who fear disability and to those (disabled people)who fear being labeled as truly "disabled".

Thanks, Dana, for pointing to the parallel with the civil rights movement and the taking back of the word "black."  Can we draw other parallels?  Do you agree with Mary Johnson's arguments for "taking back" the negative word "cripple?" And what do you think of the use of that word in Cheryl Marie Wade's poem?

23-MAR-97 20:57 Trevor Wolzien

I thought the poetry was amazing, and although I'm straight and white, many of my friends are black,
gay and lesbian and through my experience with them, I think you can take the power out of words
by accepting them for yourself...whether it be crip, handicapped, queer, dyke, or nigga, just like they have. I'll never forget being at a pro-choice abortion rally in Washington, D.C. and seeing the most beautiful woman I've ever seen in my life pass by me and see a huge "dyke" sticker on her but, and I thought that was something for her to take pride in. And I no longer thought of the term as derogatory, but as ermpowering if that's how you chose to use it.

24-MAR-97 14:51 Jenna Goodman

Can we definately say that, Yes, when you 'take back' a word (ie: 'cripple') you are fully exchanging all of its negative connotations for an empowering term? Obviously there is something empowering about 'taking back' language or it wouldn't happen so often, but I have a hard time swallowing the idea that that word then loses all of its original intent.  Maybe part of it is saying "yes, I am all that you say I am, and there's nothing wrong with that, in fact, it's wonderful!" In that case, though, do we become what we have been defined, as an act of self-preservation? Cheryl Wade seems to take some of it on so that she can spit it back in the face of its original meaning and usage, a complete act of defiance against the common perception of the terms.

24-MAR-97 20:24 Donna L. Ellis

Cheryl Marie Wade is "the Gimp, the Cripple, the Crazy Lady, the Woman with Juice" -- you can't exterminate her. Like Kali, she embraces all and is exultant in who she is.  What grabs me about this poem is the identification with the community of people with disabilities. I feel that so strongly. Don't give me a euphemism that makes you feel better, I am my brothers and sisters.

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