How should society talk about groups and people?

Another piece that’s mostly opinion. 

An acquaintance of mine posted a statement on social media about how people tend to be insensitive towards people living with disabilities, and that society should go towards using certain phrases that are “less offensive” than the ones commonly used now.

Language and terminology is an ongoing skirmish in discourse- especially American discourse. It pits community against individual rights. The community, generally speaking, moves forward with language regarding certain groups- to the point where the politically correct terms of the past are now being replaced with new ones, since what was one tasteful is now tasteless. The march of time. While present attention is given towards the term “retard” or “retarded”, terms introduced to replace “idiot” some time ago, it happens with all labels. Using “Negro” in almost any setting is anachronistic in 2014, it being replaced by black and African-American, which in some circles is being replaced by person of color. Some assert their right to use any term- and that no words should be banned just because they are offensive.

This is well-known and much has been written about the progression and its implications. Having now spent several months in the community of people with disabilities, their families, and those that seek to help them, I have a stronger grasp of what the conflict is all about.

My friend stated that people should start using the term “handy-capable” or “differently-abled”. As neither he nor I have a physical disability, our logic is no substitute for those who the terms are referring to. There is a certain feeling about appropriate versus inappropriate language just by thinking about it, but you can’t be sure in isolation. You can’t be sure that you’re not racist until you’ve spent some time interacting with people of a different race. Theory and practice are not the same.

Ultimately I think both suggested terms are viable, though I haven’t heard anyone ever use them in nine months of attending meetings and events about disability issues. What seems to be the most important thing is where the person is in your language. The person should come first, before whatever characteristics they have.

The comparison between:

Over there is a disabled person.
versus
Over there is a person with a disability.

seems vital to me. Besides the fact that the person comes before the descriptor in the sentence, the term “disabled” versus “disability” sound and feel different. Disabled sounds severe, fatalistic. Disability seems normal, just a part of someone’s life. Thus perhaps it’s not the words used but where they are placed.

With time almost everything is overturned. The science, religion, politics, and of course language of all societies has changed in the past century, often dramatically. With language and talking about people, the question must be asked- what is the goal of language in this case? Brevity? Accuracy? Positivity? Inclusiveness? If there isn’t a goal, then all the changing terms and “political correctness” is just circling the drain.

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