There are several different topics I’m trying to write about. Sometimes, when I start typing, the words just flow out and I end up in a totally different place than I was intending to go. The following was part of another post, but it was just too incongruous with the style of the rest of the piece, and long at that. And these topics deserve to be addressed on their own.
Before we go any further, you guys are going to need a quick tutorial on models of disability.
There are a number of models, but the two primary models are the medical model and the social model. These are the two most often discussed because of the particular ways they conflict with one another.
The medical model centers around the individual. The medical model defines disability in opposition to the normal body/brain, as deviating from that model of normalcy, and any problems that arise in your life are seen as arising from your deviation. Thus, these problems are to be solved by addressing that deviation — by bringing your body/brain closer to the normal model.
The social model centers around the structure of society. The social model does not seek to define disability: instead, it proposes that the problem is that society is built such that many people are prohibited from full participation in society because of their differences. Under the social model, the problem is not the difference, the problem is that society does not accommodate that difference. “The problem is not the person” is a common refrain from champions of the social model.
In short, you might say: The cause of exclusion is not the disability. The cause of exclusion is how the rest of society treats disability. Therefore, what needs to be addressed to eliminate this exclusion is not the individual person’s condition. What needs to be addressed is how society is set up in such a way that this person faces trouble when attempting to exercise hir right to participation equal to that of a non-disabled person. What do you change? Not the person. Society.
There are many other models of disability (including the charity model, which I think deserves more focus because of the real and lasting damage it does to disabled people) listed and explained here. It is worth a read. (You can try the Wikipedia page, but it appears to be written from an abled perspective, and of course the one model they promote besides the two above is the “market” model — how quintessentially white-American-male of them. A lesson in lenses.)
That said, I’d like to take a moment to establish a point regarding respectful language.
When at all possible, I prefer to use the term “condition” rather than words like illness, disease, disorder — which require the assumption that something is wrong with the person. The word “condition” has a more-or-less neutral connotation, in my experience, which allows me to describe the condition (see what I did there?) of a person’s body and/or mind without loading them down with all the detritus attached to the medical model, which assumes deviance over variance.
That said, sometimes I lapse, and fall into using the more common terms — like, here, mental illness (similarly, chronic illness, invisible illness, etc). I do honestly believe that there has to be a better way to describe the same thing — [mental/chronic/invisible] health condition? — and honestly prefer that those whose brains and bodies are normative would stick to the neutral language.
But something holds me back from being too strict with myself, and others in the atypical realm, on the language issue. Sometimes, I feel like embracing the commonly-accepted language to describe my disability-pride, body-positive, radical acceptance politics might help change exactly what concepts come to mind when people use that language.
Thing is, this isn’t something that can be done in every instance. There are words which simply aren’t going to be reclaimed to a point where even non-group members can use it without calling forth all of the hate and pain associated with them. There is absolutely no acceptable use of the word “retard” or any derivative thereof.
But every once in awhile, a space seems to open up for those of more radical leanings to take hold of that language and transform it.
You see, it’s happening. Right now. With the disability movement.
Think about the word “disability.” There are so many problems to identify with using this particular word to describe a certain category of people. It uses negative language — the prefix “dis-” — to describe them, which sets the tone for all the discussion that follows. The word necessarily implies a lack of something, which is a screwy way to describe a set of people and leaves all sorts of trouble in its wake. And the assumption that people with disabilities do not have ability is kind of silly, isn’t it? Ability to do what? Maybe certain folks with disabilites cannot walk — or talk — or perform certain self-care tasks — or work for pay. But those people do have the ability to do a host of other things. Why is it only that-which-exists-in-opposition-to-abled-people which is important to identify? And why can these differences never be positive?
That’s just a start.
But here’s the thing. The disability community — not unequivically, but more or less — has embraced this word and run with it. Fuck all y’all and y’alls shitty assumptions, they say. We’re DISABLED AND PROUD!
And the disability community is holding its ground. It has created a positive identity out of the language that the scornful world shoved on us. A wide-ranging, rich and deep identity that is all its own — it’s disabled people deciding how to define their disability. Self-determination at its best. And if anybody thinks otherwise, well, fuck ‘em.
And make no mistake, disabled folks are everywhere, and the community they form as a group is strong and working hard and accomplishing incredible things.
I have no shame about calling myself disabled, or saying that I have disabilities. I used to — along with other fears and anxieties about the term — but the more I connect with this community, the less I give a shit about all these problematic ideas and attitudes that abled folk come up with. I was holding back based on a construction that was wholly centered aroudn the ideas of people who were not disabled. Why should I be giving them the biggest say when determining my own identity?
The term “mental illness” (et al.) has its problems. But I’m hoping — really hoping — that it can come to inhabit the same sort of space “disabled” does now. Maybe not. Maybe I’d be better off switching to “health condition” to try to neutralize the toxic attitudes of the rest of society.
I also hope that people with mental conditions which typically aren’t considered “severe” enough to be categorized with conditions like schizophrenia and borderline — depression and anxiety disorders, for instance — might come to realize the similarities they share based on how society treats them both — and accept a term that puts them square beside fellow marginalized folk, standing in solidarity.
These are all my own thoughts. Every person has their own ideas, and is free to identify however they feel is most fitting for who they are. There will not be a monolithic voice here. And there may well be criticisms of what I’ve written here, and I’m ready to accept those if so.
But I wanted to clarify right now, so that people understand exactly what is behind these words when I use them.
A quick aside: many of us with invisible disabilities, with mental illness, with health conditions that aren’t as inhibitive as we usually think when we think “disabled,” have trouble identifying ourselves as disabled — we feel like we don’t count.
I want everyone to know this: the disability community welcomes all of us warmly, if and when we come around to that identity. The disability community readily accepts these people.
You know who makes the biggest fuss about how certain people “don’t count”? — Abled people. Abled people who have no investment in the disability community. Abled people who aren’t interested in actually listening to people with disabilities to learn what they actually want from the rest of the world. Abled people who aren’t interested in actually addressing practical issues for the disabled.
These are the people who police that boundary. These are the people who try to shame you. Not disabled people. Abled people.
Don’t let them make you afraid of identifying a certain way. Own your identity. Have it for your reasons. Not theirs.
Another aside: I would much rather people adopt the social model than adopt people-first language, if I were forced to choose one. I appreciate people-first language and, given that we are thankfully not forced to choose one, I use it.
But sometimes I feel like abled folk take it on to the exclusion of any other action to help PWD. There are so many other things we need. Please do something real about them. Don’t just stop at changing one fucking word in your vocabulary. Thanks.
- Perfect by amandaw July 7, 2009
- Insurance Company Revokes Depressed Woman’s Benefits Over Facebook Photos by Cara November 23, 2009
- Disability and Class by Cara May 1, 2009
- Things That Make My Life Easier, A Reintroduction (Part 2 of 3) by amandaw August 21, 2010
- Disability Terminology: A Starter Kit for Nondisabled People and the Media by s.e. smith June 18, 2010