The Paralympics end today after a week of what seemed to be decent coverage, though it depended on where you tried to watch them. The host country allotted 150 hours of coverage to the Games, Australia clocked in 100 hours, and Germany and France allotted 65 and 77 hours respectively. Meanwhile, the United States broadcast a whopping five and half hours and no live coverage at all, as per tradition. Yay.
Considering how little attention was afforded the Games themselves, it is unsurprising that there was little dialogue stateside about disability rights and issues of equality. What a missed opportunity. The British media immersed itself in it, with articles like “Is it Ok To Call The Athletes Brave?” Indeed, disrespectful attitudes toward people with disabilities today are more often implicitly patronizing than openly derisive, and it was pleasing to see the public address this.
The Paralympic Guide to Reporting that was handed out to media outlets brought up several interesting points about language. It rightfully asserts that disabling conditions or features should not be turned into personal nouns that define the entire person or people in question: i.e., the disabled, the blind, a paraplegic. Adjectives and verbs—a paraplegic athlete, athletes with disabilities—are less limiting, portraying a medical condition as one of many characteristics a person has. (This has been repeated to me ad infinitum by a friend who’s uncomfortable whenever I refer to myself as a dwarf. “You are Emily. You have dwarfism!” he insists. “And you have hazel eyes and freckles and long hair…”) Other terms and phrases to avoid noted by the guide include:
confined to a wheelchair
The last three are commonly used today. They’re problematic because they imply that a disability is always regrettable. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. Suffering may have been an apt term for my achondroplasia two months ago, when severe lumbar pain made it hard for me to think of anything else during a sightseeing trip in England. But suffering has nothing to do with all the ways in which my condition has brought me in contact with all sorts of unique people and places and outlooks. I can’t imagine my life without it. It’s my version of normal. Unless the patient specifically says otherwise, any assumption that a disability is a round-the-clock tragedy is wrong.
For the sake of splitting hairs, I sometimes think the words disabled and disability are problematic because they automatically draw attention to what a person cannot do. In the worst case, they can sound pitiful. I’m very fond of the word typical in lieu of normal or able-bodied because it highlights that the standard by which we group people is based on a body type chosen by the scientific community. It implies medical averages, not social values. Typical is used in everyday speech to mean “usual” at best and “unexciting” at worst, unlike normal, which implies a state of correctness worth striving for, like in the phrase “back to normal.” Discussions of autism and some other psychiatric conditions now commonly use the term neurotypical to refer to people without the diagnoses. Maybe physiotypical could someday be the term for non-disabled people.
But as I’ve said a few times before, the search for acceptable terms is not about deciding what automatically classifies a speaker as Tolerant or Bigoted. Words are only half as important as the intentions behind them, and the desire to understand another’s perspective is what separates an empathic person from a selfish one. In the recent words of Professor Charles Negy, “Bigots… never question their prejudices.”
The above list of do’s and don’ts is probably disconcerting to some readers. I always feel simultaneously inspired and confused when given a list of hot-button words I’m told to avoid from now on. Hell, I’ve written the word able-bodied before, and I’m someone excluded by it. I find no problem with the word handicapped—I had handicapped housing rights in college and a handicapped parking sticker during my limb-lengthening procedures—but it’s considered offensively archaic in the U.K., apparently similar to invalid or cripple. As we’ve seen in the midget vs. dwarf vs. LP debate, rarely is there ever a consensus in a given community over labels. Labels are almost always problematic. In my experience, the dialogue always matters more than the conclusion it comes to.
And the inability of the U.S. media to have such dialogue during the Paralympics was pitiful.