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The Language Of Disability: Problems Of Politics And Practice

From: Australian Disability Review
Creator: Irving Kenneth Zola (author)
Date: 1988
Publication: Australian Disability Review
Source: Available at selected libraries

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'When I use the word, it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'
-- Humpty Dumpty

The Power of Naming

"Language. . .has as much to do with the philosophical and political conditioning of a society as geography or climate. . .people do not realise the extent to which their attitudes have been conditioned since early childhood by the power of words 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 metabolised 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." (Saturday Review 1967)


A step in this awareness in the recognition of how deep is the power of naming in Western culture.


According to the Old Testament, God's first act after saying, 'Let there be light' was to call the light 'Day' and the darkness 'Night'. Moreover, God's first act after the creation of Adam was to bring in every beast of the field so that Adam could give them names; and 'whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof' (Genesis 2:20). Thus what one is called tends 'to stick' and any unnaming process is not without its difficulties and consequences (Le Guin 1985).


While a name has always connoted some aspect of one's -sic- status (e.g. job, location, gender, social class, ethnicity, kinship), the mid-twentieth century seems to be a time when the issue of naming has assumed a certain primacy (Friedrich 1986; Vickery 1986). In the post-World War II era Erikson (1950) and Wheelis (1958) noted that 'Who am I' or the issue of identity had become a major psychological concern of the US population. The writings of C. Wright Mills (1959) as well as the Women's Movement (Boston Women's Health Book Collective 1970), however, called attention to the danger of individualising any issue as only a 'personal problem'. The power of naming was thus recognised not only as a personal issue but a political one as well. While social scientists focused more on the general 'labelling' process (Becker 1963, 1964; K. Erikson 1962, 1966; Schur 1965) and the measurement of attitudes toward people with various chronic diseases and disabilities (Siller 1986; Yuker 1966), a number of 'liberation' or 'rights' movements focused on the practical implications. They claimed that language was one of the mechanisms by which dominant groups kept others 'in place' (Gumperz 1982; Longmore 1985). Thus, as minority groups sought to gain more control over their lives, the issue of naming -- what they are called -- was one of the first battlegrounds. The resolution of this was not always clear-cut. For some, the original stigmata became the banner: Negroes and coloureds become blacks. For others, only a completely new designation would suffice; 'Ms' has caught on as a form of address but 'womyn', 'wimmin' have not been so successful as a way of severing the vocabulary connection to 'men'. People with disabilities are in the midst of a similar struggle.


The struggle is confounded by some special circumstances which mitigate against the easy development of either a disability pride or culture (Johnson 1987; Zola 1988). For unlike most minority groups who grow up in a recognised subculture and thus develop certain norms and expectations, people with chronic diseases and disabilities are not similarly prepared. The nature of their experience has been towards isolation. The vast majority of people who are born with or acquire such conditions do so with families who themselves do not have these conditions nor associate with others who do. We are socialised into the world of 'normal' with all its values, prejudices, and vocabulary. As one generally attempts to rise out of one status, there is always an attempt to put this status in some perspective. The statements that one is more than just a black or a woman, etc. are commonplace. On the other hand, where chronic illness and disability are concerned, this negation is almost total and is tantamount to denial. Proof of successful integration is embodied in such statements as 'I never think of myself as handicapped' or the supreme compliment, 'I never think of you as handicapped'.


What then of the institutions where we spend our time: the long-term hospitals, sanitoria, convalescent and nursing homes? These are aptly labelled 'total institutions', (Goffman 1961) but 'total' refers to their control over our lives, not to the potential fullness they offer us. The subcultures formed within such places are largely defensive and designed to make life viable within the institution. Often this viability is achieved at such a cost that it cannot be transferred to the external world.


For most of their history, organisations of people with disabilities were not much more successful in their efforts to produce a viable subculture. Their memberships have been small in comparison to the potential population, and they have been regarded more as social groups rather than serious places to gain technical knowledge or emotional support. And though there are some self-help groups which are becoming increasingly more visible, militant, and independent of medical influence, the movement is still in its infancy (Crewe and Zola 1982).

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