Political Correctness and the Language of Disability

We are living in a highly-charged political climate where words slash at egos like Chinese throwing stars. Words count. They hurt. We bleed not in the brain, but in the mind and spirit when the wrong words find our ears. The internet is full of articles about what’s in and what’s out. I don’t know about you, but I struggle to keep up.

They're not called that anymore

Often I learn the latest correct term by using the wrong one in a conversation. For example, years ago I was chatting with a coworker married to a woman employed by an airline. “Oh,” I said, “is she a stewardess?” His previously separate eyebrows came together to form one. “Airline attendant,” he hissed between clenched teeth, “they’re not called stewardesses anymore.” How ignorant of me. I rarely traveled by air, a choice that left me pathetically uninformed and out of the loop. I never used the word stewardess again. Embarrassing, but effective.

My latest head-scratching session concerns what our aboriginal population wants to be called. In my youth it was always Indians. Later it became Native Americans. But just the other day I read a piece insisting that aboriginal people call themselves Indians and prefer that label. I’ve yet to read anything definitive, something that either declares a consensus across all tribes or that describes what each tribe would like to be called. It makes me think of the movie Little Big Man (1970), where Dustin Hoffman becomes a member of the Cheyenne tribe. The Cheyenne called themselves “human beings,” a designation they didn’t extend to white people. I always liked that.

The confusing MS playbook

No less confusing is the playbook for how to address people like us. See how I avoided using labels there? Heh-heh. I can’t keep that up indefinitely, though. Weirdly, I’ve stumbled over my words online and gotten a stern protest from a fellow patient. I used to use “MSers” to describe us – until one day a reader chastised me. “I was really into what you wrote in your article — but then you ruined it by using MSer. I hate that. I’m so disappointed in you.” Okay. It used to be the thing to use and I just didn’t get the memo to kill it. But what are we called now?

I'm not an orangutan

I often use “disabled people” in my writing and speech. But a Facebook video shot that one down just this morning. “I’m not a disabled person,” a woman with Lupus declared, “I’m a person with a disability. Person first, disability second.” I like that. But frankly, it doesn’t sound like something to be used personally. Wouldn’t we say “I have a disability?” I feel kind of silly saying “I’m a person” when it’s obvious I’m that and not an orangutan. What’s more, I’m a person with a disability seems rather stiff and formal, not to mention a little nutty switching point of view from 1st to 3rd person. It sounds like I’m not even in the room. Or in my body. A ventriloquist throwing her voice from behind a curtain.

Another touchy one

Another touchy one has to do with wheelchairs. Being wheelchair-bound went out with the Downton Abbey series finale. “I use a wheelchair,” a person-who-is-mobility-challenged said recently. “I’m not in a wheelchair. I’m not bound to it. I can walk with a cane and crutches. I just use the chair if I need to.”

I like that one a lot. Someday, I’ll get the hang of it. It would help if someone would publish a thesaurus specifically with terms for disabled people — I mean, people with disabilities.

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