Centuries ago William Shakespeare wrote the phrase “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Many people recognize the phrase which was made famous by Shakespeare’s tragic love story Romeo and Juliet, but few have taken the time to think about what it means. When I looked up the meaning of the phrase I found a few websites stating it means something like what matters is what something is, not what it is called. While this is a wonderful thought, it discounts how much stock society puts into the meaning our language assigns to the things and people around us. In the last Examine This, I discussed oppression of people with disabilities throughout history and how it still exists in society today even though some people think we are far too evolved to be oppressive toward any group of people. The language used in society is one reason oppression has always existed and does, in fact, still exist. Throughout this century, people with disabilities have been described in many oppressive ways. According to an article entitled, “A Little History Worth Knowing,” which can be found on www.acils.com, legislators from Vermont once referred to us as “a blight on mankind.” Worst yet, legislators from South Dakota once said that we “did not deserve the rights and liberties of normal people.” The language used to describe people with disabilities today is not as blatantly oppressive, but is still oppressive nonetheless.
The importance of language is discussed in The Access Center’s disability awareness training that has been described in prior newsletters. During the training, our director describes how language is a series of words strung together to assign meaning, but some words have more than one meaning. Take the word “handicap,” for example, in golf, a handicap is used to level the playing field among participants. The higher a person’s handicap score is the poorer a player he/she is considered, so having a high handicap is considered to be negative. As you know, this term is sometimes used to describe people with disabilities as well. Disabled is another term used to describe people with disabilities. During the training, our director also asks people what comes to mind when they are driving and hear on the radio there is a disabled vehicle on I-75. Most people admit that they assume the car is broken and needs to be dragged off and fixed. Previous editions of Examine This have talked about how the Access Center Staff believes that disability is a natural part of life. A person having a disability does not necessarily mean he/she is ill and it does not mean that he or she is broken. Unfortunately, that is how some able-bodied people view people with disabilities, thanks in part to the language used to describe us in society. As I explained above, the term disabled is commonly associated with the fact that something needs to be fixed. How is that supposed to make people with disabilities feel? As someone who has been asked if I want to be cured many times I will say that it makes me feel inadequate and as though something is wrong with me even though I know there is nothing wrong with me. I have to live my life a little differently from other people, but just because something is different does not mean it is wrong. I am close to some of the people who have questioned me about whether I want a cure for my disability. I will admit that I have gone through periods of depression in my life because those people have made me feel as though I am not good enough. The people who have asked if I want a cure for my disability do not realize that they are essentially asking whether I’d like to be a different person. I say that because for better or for worse, my disability is a part of me. Although it does not define me, I know I’d be a different person if I didn’t have it.
This and the stories discussed on the cover of this newsletter are examples of internalized oppression which sadly occurs often in society today. According to Centers for Independent Living, oppression is defined as things that devalue, burden, obstruct, intimidate, or get in the way. Internalized oppression occurs when people internalize the things that get in their way to the point that it affects how they feel about themselves. In preschool, we become familiar with the phrase “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” The fact that internalized oppression is still so prevalent today shows the phrase is far from true. Words are powerful and can make all the difference. I am not going to leave you with a mind-bending question like I normally do at the end an of Examine This article. Instead, I am going to further point out that oppression is always present whether it be blatant or quiet. It is especially present in the Disability Rights Movement and the only way we can ever conquer oppression and achieve equal rights is by acknowledging it, discussing it, and working through it. So as an ending to this article, I ask that you use the power behind your words for good. Don’t ignore oppression or make light of it. Staying silent is just as bad as actually oppressing someone. Instead, speak up and make people aware of oppression because that is the only way that we are going to overcome it.
Note: This article was originally published in the Winter 2013 edition of the Access Center for Independent Living newsletter, the Accessible Community Examiner, which I wrote for the two and half years I worked there. The Access Center for Independently is a non-profit in Dayton, Ohio that works to ensure that people with disabilities have full and complete access to the community in which they choose to live.