Let's talk about language! How to avoid being accidentally ableist
Part 4: No, we don't want a cure
Hello, and welcome to the fourth and final part of my special series on language and disability.
Apologies to those of you who were expecting this post last week. I finally came down with Covid, continuing my lifelong pattern of doing everything long after it’s cool. But all is well and we’re back!
Last time we looked humanising our language and treating disabled people like, well, people.
All of this is important because our language choices can directly affect how we conceive of disability and disabled people. The wrong words can perpetuate ableism, and the right ones can help to dismantle it.
This week, we’re looking at the assumption that disabled people want a ‘cure’.
Part 4: No, we don’t want a cure
Now, let’s just clarify what we’re talking about here. Many disabled people would like (some of) their symptoms to improve. Personally, I would be A-OK with less back pain. Many disabled people spend a lot of valuable time and energy trying to get decent healthcare or other professional support, support that you shouldn’t have to struggle to access. Any suggestion that they should “try” x or y ignores these structural problems and is annoying as hell.
But it’s important to remember that looking for ways to manage symptoms is very different to wanting a ‘cure’ - that is, wanting to become nondisabled. Some people do want this, and that’s their right, but the majority of disabled people don’t. Assuming we do is highly offensive: it reinforces the idea that being disabled is bad, and that there is something wrong with us that needs to be ‘fixed’. It also undermines our understanding of disability as a social phenomenon, and ignores the fact that many of us our proud of our identity and our place in the disabled community.
But more than any of that, the assumption that we should want a cure is simply an assumption that our lives are so bad we would rather be a totally different person. It implies that there is no joy or happiness in our lives. And it implies that you think it would be better if disabled people didn’t exist.
So, no, we don’t want a ‘cure’. We’d just like it to be easier to be ourselves.
Here are some phrases to avoid:
Have you tried going dairy/gluten/sugar/anything-that-makes-life-worth-living free? - let’s blame this one on the wellness industry (which should just be renamed the neurotic industry). The idea that chronic illnesses and disabilities can be cured by a dietary choice is a) for the birds, and b) very dangerous. It puts the responsibility on disabled people to ‘fix’ ourselves (which of course we don’t need to do) rather than on society to accommodate us. Newly disabled people, who often are understandably a bit vulnerable, are sent off on wild-goose-chases for a cure rather than being bought into the world of disability justice and community. It’s exploitative (supplements are expensive) and gross and if you really believe bananas have magical powers, you should probably be getting help for yourself rather than offering it to us. There’s also something slightly sexist about it; the intertwining of diet culture and the idea that we don’t know how to look after ourselves is all kinds of icky paternalism and I can’t help but wonder if people say this to disabled men.
Have you tried yoga? - honestly, people are zealots for yoga; they always have a frenzied look in their eye when they say this. A friend of a friend once asked me this question on a night out and when I asked her what for she simply gestured at my body, as if the very existence of it required me to do something. Once again, disabled people are assumed to be in need of fixing, and not only that: it is assumed that some stretching will do the job. Me and my hamstrings of steel would beg to differ on both counts
Maybe one day they’ll find a cure! - for what? I do not want to be cured of being myself. Maybe one day they’ll find a cure for offensiveness and we can give it to the people who say this
How about an exoskeleton/stair climbing wheelchair/flying carpet? This might not seem the same as talking about a cure but it comes from the same place: wanting to make disabled bodies less disabled. It’s still a fix - just an external rather than internal one. Stop thinking walking is the pinnacle of existence. Wheeling is fine. Disabled people shouldn’t have to have tens of thousands of pounds of equipment just to fit a nondisabled ideal of how people should move. We don’t want to be able to walk, we want you to buy a sodding ramp
And there we have it. A comprehensive guide to not being accidentally ableist with your language.
How have you been thinking about the language you use about disability? Let me know in the comments or on social media.
If you’ve learned anything from this series, I would really appreciate you sharing it and, if possible, becoming a paying subscriber to this newsletter. Together we can create a community of anti-ableists working for a more inclusive future.
See you next week,
Links of the week
I didn’t read much this week because of Covid but I did have two pieces published in the Guardian so here are the links!
‘Some people think they would rather die than have help brushing their teeth – but care is not tragic’
‘When the world gets too much, I reach for The West Wing’
A little note of thanks
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