Sunday, February 9, 2003

Words that define people by disability demean them

I spent the weekend reading one of the many books that have been accumulating in my office and bedroom all winter. It was Richard Russo's Empire Falls (Vintage Books; $14.95 paperback), a novel with rich characters and language, albeit too much happy resolution in its lengthy 483 pages. But this is not a book review. One of the characters in the book is a woman with a mobility impairment. Hit and dragged by a car as a child, she walks with a support cane and/or walker, and is repeatedly referred to by the author and other characters in the book as a "cripple."

Certain words make me shudder - and "cripple" is among the worst offenders. I tried to ignore it, to read around it, but the word and all of its attaching attitudes was inescapable. I couldn't ignore Russo's use of the word cripple any more than I could ignore an ethnic slur.

Patronizing attitude

Pathetic, pitiable, courageous and undesirable are all traits that might well be attributed to Cindy Whiting as we see her at various ages from 15 to 40 in the novel. The fact that she has always been in love with Miles Roby is portrayed as pitiful, and when Miles' friend comments that he finds her rather pretty, the implication is that he is probably patronizing, trying to diminish Miles' shame at having to take her to the prom.

If this was last century's best-seller, it wouldn't have bothered me so much. But this is two-year-old book by a contemporary author, drawing contemporary characters, and the message is clear: A girl who has her legs destroyed is a cripple; and a cripple is a defective human being.

This isn't hypersensitivity. It's pragmatism. The words we use to label others send instant visual images, particularly when we use a defining term as the noun.

Legislative and cultural changes affecting the ways in which we write, think about, and portray people of color and women are reflected in changes in our language. Ironically, those changes to our words typically came after a change mandated by some law or regulation. And so it is with disability.

In the past 30 years a number of laws have been passed to protect the civil rights of Americans with disabilities. Lagging behind those changes is a more respectful use of language to identify those people.

"What's with you, are you blind?" someone says, and the message is: "Are you stupid?" Deaf carries similar pejorative significance, and "retard" infers an even lower rung on the ladder of humanity.

Put focus on person

If we talk about, write about, think about all people as people, more positive attitudes will follow. A person is not equal to the disability. A person has a disability. In other words, a child has autism or mental retardation or dyslexia or a hearing impairment. An adult might have cerebral palsy, a personality disorder, arthritis or a spinal cord injury.

Only when it becomes intuitive for us to talk about people as people, and incorporate their physical or mental disabilities as ingredients, characteristics that contribute to but do not constitute the whole person, can we actually see people with disabilities as equal players.

Of course, a real live person with a disability could be cloying, pitiful, unattractive. But those unfortunate attributes are not present because of the disability, but in addition to it.

My problem with the label in the book I otherwise enjoyed - as in so many other novels, films, news reports and conversations - is that once the author used that shudder-provoking word to define her, the character didn't stand a chance.

Contact Deborah Kendrick by phone: 673-4474; fax: 321-6430; e-mail:

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