Evolution of Disability Termiology a Class-based Struggle?
August 8, 2009 1:38 PM   Subscribe

A few years ago I formulated a sociological theory about the evolution of terms used to refer to those afflicted by certain classes of disabilities, whether physical or mental, in which more functional members of the class resent being "bundled" with less functional members and are hence in a constant, mostly subconscious, quest for differentiation. This leads to development of ever more benign terms ("handicapable!") which themselves quickly become associated with the whole, therefore perpetuating the cycle. The theory seemed obvious to me when I thought of it, but I've yet to see it espoused or debunked elsewhere. Have you? Or, failing that, do you see any obvious arguments for or against it?

Two examples, in case I wasn't clear enough with my explanation:

A paraplegic, for instance, might once have said of a quadriplegic: "I'm not a cripple, he's a cripple! I'm just a bit... disabled.", and a relatively high-functioning mental patient might once have said of a near-vegetable: "I'm not an idiot, he's an idiot! I'm just slightly retarded."
posted by The Confessor to Society & Culture (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think you can apply the same theory to just about any group.

People set up camps. If they are already in a camp, they set up sub-camps. Then the people in the sub-camps set up mini-camps.
posted by ian1977 at 1:43 PM on August 8, 2009

"Internecine" will be a helpful word here.
posted by rhizome at 1:44 PM on August 8, 2009

I think you've got a false dichotomy AND a chatfilter question that doesn't need to be here.

First, I think you'll see that the actual, *correct* terms used to define these people and their disabilities have not changed at all. For example, "he's a hydrocephalic gentleman with spina-bifida and a bilateral amputation" is the right way of saying "He's a big headded tard with no legs."

The same as a "penis" is a cock, a weiner, a John Thomas, etc etc etc.

I also think you'll find that most of these "people" of whom you speak, who happen to have an "opinion", are generally opposed to any grouping at all regardless of severity and would much prefer to be treated as "people" or "a person with a disability" than some madeup bullshit PC bunch of crap like Handicapable.

full disclosure, I currently am employed in the field of disability rights.
posted by TomMelee at 1:50 PM on August 8, 2009

"First, I think you'll see that the actual, *correct* terms used to define these people and their disabilities have not changed at all. "

I disagree with this. Idiot used to be a valid medical term no? Retard supplanted idiot at some point. And now developmentally disabled is the preferred term.
posted by ian1977 at 1:53 PM on August 8, 2009

Did you publish your theory anywhere? Do you have grad students trying to extend or falsify your theory?
posted by k8t at 1:57 PM on August 8, 2009

"Idiot" and "dumb" (meaning mute) haven't been terms as long as there have been a visible social rights movement for the people in question, and for what it's worth MR/DD is a valid diagnosis meaning "mentally retarded/developmentally disabled."

Point taken though, and you can take it even further to encompass the *new* diagnoses that didn't exist 10, 20, 50 years ago.
posted by TomMelee at 1:58 PM on August 8, 2009

do you see any obvious arguments for or against it?

Yes. I doubt that some handicapped people are plucking new terms for other handicapped people out of thin air and then imposing them on society as a whole. Language doesn't generally work that way, IME.

Also, the "more benign" terms, such as "differently abled" are not, in fact, initially applied to a subset of handicapped people before being applied to all handicapped people, they're simply PC terms applied to the whole class.

I think you're trying to make up a mechanism for a non-existing phenomenon.
posted by signal at 2:03 PM on August 8, 2009

I agree with your theory, I hadn't considered the fact that it may be a subgroup within the cohort that desired differentiation.

I believe what happens is that negative connotations associated with certain terms leave the realm of connotations and enter the realm of denotations. As people try to dissociate themselves from the negative aspects of the term, they develop new terms, and the process starts all over.

Crippled -> Handicapped -> Disabled -> Differently abled

I believe this leads to absurd terms. Handicapped people are not "differently abled". They are disabled, crippled. It's hard. It's not fair.

As TomMelee points out, we all desire to be regarded as individuals, as just regular people.
posted by Xoebe at 2:06 PM on August 8, 2009

Response by poster: k8t

Are you being facetious, or do I actually have to append the fact that I am not actually a sociologist, haven't the education or familiarity with the subject groups to evaluate my own theory, have no standing with which to publish it for review, and have no means by which to compel graduate students to do anything?
posted by The Confessor at 2:08 PM on August 8, 2009

Response by poster: k8t

Actually, scratch that; I can make them pay for their Chalupa. If they order from my register. At Taco Bell.
posted by The Confessor at 2:10 PM on August 8, 2009

Best answer: I think it is a phenomenon but one that applies to every group of people.

The gay rights movement ostracized its minority members initially.

A centrist democrat might consider a far left democrat to be a pinko commie.

A centrist republican might consider a far right republican to be a wack job nazi

A middle class person might consider a lower middle class person to be trailer trash.

In general, I think that everyone thinks they are right smack dab in the middle, that they practically define the middle. Everyone 'beneath' them (in status, ability, opportunity) is deficient and lazy and everyone 'above' them had life handed to them on a silver platter.
posted by ian1977 at 2:11 PM on August 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

I believe this leads to absurd terms. Handicapped people are not "differently abled". They are disabled, crippled. It's hard. It's not fair.

"One of the reasons is because we were using that soft language. That language that takes the life out of life. And it is a function of time. It does keep getting worse."

-George Carlin (from his Shell Shock v. Battle Fatigue v. PTSD spiel)
posted by ian1977 at 2:13 PM on August 8, 2009

No, I was serious. I thought that the question was "why hasn't my theory been extended?" from the phrasing...
posted by k8t at 2:18 PM on August 8, 2009

Response by poster: k8t

[Apology placeholder; actually apology will be mefi-mailed to avoid further derailing]
posted by The Confessor at 2:21 PM on August 8, 2009

Best answer: What I think you've stumbled on is a common misapplication of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

Beginning in the 1960's someone had this bright idea: If, as Sapir and Whorf say, the words we use affect the way we think about things, then if we can only force people to use different words then they'll have different thoughts!

That was why it used to be OK to use the word "negro". Then it was "black". Then it was "Afro-American". Then it was "African American". And in parallel there was the effort to which you refer to try to come up with new and better terms for the disabled. A lot of that went on in the 1960's and 1970's.

It's all bunk. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis itself is in deep disrepute these days, and as you yourself pointed out, what really happens is that when new words are forced into use as replacements for older words, those new words attach to the old meanings instead of replacing them with new meanings. New sounds don't result in new attitudes.

And that's why they kept changing the "proper" terms. The activists were frustrated by the fact that they were successful in establishing new terms for things, but it didn't seem to be changing attitudes or behaviors. So like conquistadores searching for El Dorado, the activists redoubled their efforts to find some magical term which would change attitudes.

I think it finally became apparent to even the most zealous of zealots that it didn't work in about the 1990's and most of that foolishness ended by then.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:41 PM on August 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

It might be more useful to think in terms of spectrum rather than subgroup. I have some noticable physical... differences.. and there are specific medical diagnoses, but I don't consider myself part of any subgroup. If pressed, I guess I'd call myself disabled or differently abled, since from birth I've always had less physical capabilities than your average person. But, standing next to someone who is blind or paraplegic, I wouldn't put myself in the same category at all. This is not because I'd be insulted by it, but because it would be insulting to them to insinuate that my medical issues are as much of a challenge in daily life as theirs undoubtedly are. To be clearer (I haven't had enough caffeine), I do not resent being bundled in with less functional members of the same class. I would think the complete opposite - they would resent me for calling myself disabled when I do not require most of the accommodations people associate with disability.
posted by desjardins at 2:42 PM on August 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is related to what's known as "social comparison theory." Try a search for that in the sociological literature (not just a general Google). Other terms to use: stigma, deviance, disability, "social construction." Sorry, I don't think you're the first one to notice this. I took a class in the sociology of deviance about 15 years ago where this phenomenon was discussed.
posted by Wordwoman at 2:43 PM on August 8, 2009

Seventy years or so from now, the silly correcto-phrasing will come back around to such a degree that the new, gentle, gender-neutral, no-judgments-made-here-no-siree term will be "imbecile."
By then, no one will remember its previous incarnation, and all will be well!

And yes, back in the old days, moron, mongoloid, retarded, cretin, etc, were all perfectly valid medical terms for degrees of ...ummm....40 watt bulbitude.
posted by BostonTerrier at 2:48 PM on August 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

This has been written about in the context of disability studies and disability theory; those are good terms to google on, but there's also a lot of cross-disciplinary work with, for example, women's/gender studies and queer theory.

But yes, these are very real issues our community deals with. I've heard, "I'm disabled, but at least my /mind/ is okay" a lot; and there are several groups within which there's an ongoing controversy over whether it's accurate for members to self-identify as disabled (the most common example is the Deaf community, but the autistic and dwarf communities also see this).
posted by spaceman_spiff at 3:20 PM on August 8, 2009

I could be wrong, but it sounds like a case of the Narcissism of small differences. (previously)
posted by HumuloneRanger at 3:30 PM on August 8, 2009

Best answer: This sounds like the euphemism treadmill.
posted by ifandonlyif at 4:29 PM on August 8, 2009

There's also the double-edged sword of trying to distinguish "handi-capable" from "handicap-able".
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 5:22 PM on August 8, 2009

Chocolate Pickle beat me to the Sapir-Worf hypothesis explanation for why we started trying out new words, but I disagree that it's all bunk. "Developmental delay" does not have nearly the derogatory connotation that "idiot", "moron," and "retard" have. The words we use can facilitate different kinds of conversations (for a quick and easy example, look at moderation on askme in particular: people are encouraged to choose words and phrasings that do not contribute to derailing. Occationally comments are deleated, people complain, and then the mods allow the same information to be reposted with a more acceptable phrasing).

While I certainly wouldn't attribute all of the strides we've made in improving the lives and opportunities of disabled people to language, I certainly would be willing to entertain the possibility that moving from, say, mass institutionalization of people with Downs Syndrome to a situation in which many live semi-independently and work has been *facilitated* by language. Imagine being a small business owner confronted with the question "Would you be interested in having some retards come and work for you?" verses "Would you be interested in having some people with mild developmental delays come and work for you?" The connotations of "retard" bring with it fears about violence and innapropriate social behaviour, as well as a great deal of ambiguity about what you might actually be working with. "Mild developmental delays" is much more specific, and suggests that the people who come have an ability to learn the job and take direction.

Words are not by any means the only things that activists have been working on over the last 50 years. If you are old enough, think about how much wheel chair access you saw in the 70s and 80s as compared to today. There are all kinds of services, programs, legislation, and other things (that I am no expert on) that have changed and, as far as I can tell, have led to a number of improvements for people with a variety of physical and mental disabilities since the 1960s. It would of course be ridiculous to suggest a "strong" Sapir-Worf causative effect (and also incredibly dismissive of a lot of hard work that people have done). But the history of how we have treated disabled people is a dark and disturbing one. I think it is certainly possible that creating new vocabularies has facilitated discussions that seek to view disabled people as people first, full citizens, and deserving of consideration, rather than as ambiguous, threatening, partial citizens who should be sterilized and hidden from public view.
posted by carmen at 9:04 AM on August 12, 2009

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