Forever crooked: how everyday language reflects negative attitudes about the physically disabled

‘Standing up’ for something is viewed positively, while taking something ‘lying down’ has negative connotations. chadinbr/flickr, CC BY

Because there’s a quite lengthy list of offensive terms connected to disability, when we think of how disability is expressed in our language, it’s most commonly in the context of avoiding this offensive language. No surprise there.

However, there are more subtle ways in which the disabled are belittled and excluded – often covertly – in everyday life.

It could mean segregating children with disabilities in our public schools, as educator Torrie Dunlap outlined in a recent TED talk.

But in language, it’s not just obvious words like cripple or deformed. In fact, many common turns of phrase insinuate that being disabled is a bad thing.

As author, multimedia storyteller and wheelchair user Dr Ju Gosling explains, “The oppression and exclusion of disabled people by society is currently enshrined in our language.”

Focusing on physical disability, let’s take a closer look at how this happens.

Descriptions of the physically disabled

Though it may seem easy enough to rid ourselves of the language thought of as offensive at a given moment in time, a glance at the history of such terms makes it clear that erasing words will not erase the social structures behind them.

Instead, words referring to disfavored groups tend to go through what psychologist Steven Pinker has called the “euphemism treadmill.”

With regard to physical disability, for instance, just in the past few decades, several terms have been run off the track:

  • Since the 8th century, lame was commonly used in everyday speech to describe a physical disability or a limp, before it started to be used as a negative descriptor in the 20th century.

  • With time, this use of lame was abandoned in favor of new terms that had not (yet) acquired such undesirable connotations and were therefore considered less offensive, such as handicapped.

  • But by the 1980s, many abandoned handicapped for disabled, or, influenced by the “people first” movement, people with disabilities.

  • Some hyper-euphemized terms, such as differently-abled and alter-abled, never enjoyed widespread acceptance among disability communities or among the general public.

  • Another term, physically challenged, was both limited in scope and quickly parodied – for example, “vertically challenged” for “short” – and it quickly fell out of common use.

Some of these changes coincided with groundbreaking civil rights legislation, like IDEA, a 1975 law that guarantees access to education for children with disabilities, and the ADA, a comprehensive civil rights law, passed in 1990, that prohibits disability-based discrimination and seeks to guarantee equal opportunities for social inclusion for those with disabilities.

Nonetheless, social marginalization and poverty remain tied to disability.

For this reason, language policing is nothing more than a wild goose chase. Even if it succeeds, without concurrent social change, it’s destined to fail: for every new term that emerges, it will eventually be transformed in everyday speech to mean something negative.

New meanings aren’t random

At the same time, much media attention has been paid to the use of slurs such as retarded. Similarly, the stigma associated with psychiatric disabilities has left its mark on many words, rendering them insults, such as crazy and insane.

So why isn’t more attention being paid to words like lame?

In the case of physical disability, once-neutral lame now describes someone who is “inept, naive, easily fooled; spec. unskilled in the fashionable behaviour of a particular group, socially inept.”

The meaning of the once-neutral ‘lame’ has changed through time. clotho98/flickr, CC BY-NC

Those who use these expressions tend to try to justify their use in one of two ways.

First, disability is (in their view) actually a bad thing. As one blogger explained:

It’s not okay to call a coward a pussy, or a bad thing gay, they argue, because there’s nothing bad about having a vagina or being homosexual. But there IS something bad about not being mobile! In fact, it’s no fun at all, just totally miserable. All other things held equal, isn’t it better to be not-lame than lame?

(It goes without saying that many people with disabilities would object to having their identity hijacked as the automatic stand-in for all things bad.)

Second, it can be argued – and with some legitimacy – that some of these terms no longer generally refer to disability. Languages change. New meanings emerge from old ones.

But that’s the point: new meanings are not random. Having undergone a process linguists call semantic bleaching, lame has lost some elements of its meaning over time. While physical impairment is no longer part of its (new) meaning, my study of its use in Time Magazine since 1923 showed that it has retained the social meanings associated with disability in the 20th century: awkwardness, stupidity, femininity, lack of social graces and sophistication, and more.

Today’s lame is an attitudinal echo.

Language is the bloodstream of society

Those who perpetuate ableist language – that is, language that devalues disability – tend to make claims of good intentions. They mean no harm.

But as pointed out in a recent New York Times article on racial bias, “good intentions do not guarantee immunity.”

Indeed, the proof is in the pudding. The words used to describe disability itself are only the most obvious – and superficial – reflections of how disability is actually perceived.

A closer look at our everyday language reveals a more insidious challenge.

Human beings tend to construct their world through metaphor. And the human body, a universal experience (everyone has one, after all), is one of the most common bases for the development of new abstract meanings through grammaticalization – the process that forms new parts of grammar as languages change.

Many common words or phrases that are associated with disability or deformity – like ‘crooked’ – are used in negative contexts. Andrew Aliferis/flickr, CC BY-ND

Not only do we use body parts to create prepositions like inside (that is, “in the side of”) or behind, but we also encode our beliefs about the social meanings of certain body shapes or postures.

We undoubtedly prefer the company of the upstanding citizen who stands for something. An upright person who stands proud, standing up to the crooked politicians and their twisted plans, leaving them without a leg to stand on. Our friend should be as straight as an arrow, and never just sit there or take it lying down.

In a 1967 Saturday Review editorial (which was cited by sociologist Irving Kenneth Zola in his 1993 reflection on the language of disability), the author noted:

Language…has as much to do with the philosophical and political conditioning of a society as geography or climate…people do not realize the extent to which their attitudes have been conditioned to ennoble or condemn, augment or detract, glorify or demean. Negative language inflicts the subconscious of most…people from the time they first learn to speak. Prejudice is not merely imparted or superimposed. It is metabolized in the bloodstream of society. What is needed is not so much a change in language as an awareness of the power of words to condition attitudes.

Yet we are not simply linguistic parrots. We speak in ways that reflect who we are and who we want to be. Perhaps one day our culture will find power in stillness.

Until then, sitting here in my wheelchair, where do I stand?