Buffy the Vampire Slayer aired from 1997-2003. The show is known and praised for many things: its seamless blending of every genre imaginable (its sci-fi, it has action, drama, horror, romance and comedy) and its portrayal of strong females and its inventive use of language. The show's dialogue still sounds fresh today, twelve years after the final season aired. Creator Joss Whedon received endless praise for the show’s writing and has garnered an amazing reputation for his innovative lexicon. The show broke new ground in its fourth season with “Hush”, an episode in which everyone loses their voices within the first act, not to regain them until the show’s final moments. Behind the episode was a fundamental mission statement: "When you stop talking, you start communicating."
I do not mention Buffy the Vampire Slayer simply to expose my inner nerd. Whedon's driving point of language getting in the way of communication is central to recognizing that language can create just as many problems as it solves.
Language is extremely powerful; words and phrases carry connotations, inferences and shape attitudes. As society moves forward, we are becoming more and more aware of the words we use and the atmosphere those choices create. It is important to choose your words carefully, to be aware of how what you';re saying comes across and is received. Having studied English literature, philosophy and education, I'm a little bit in love with language. I'm aware of the power it wields and how easily it can turn against you.
While it is absolutely paramount to understand how the words you use are heard and received and to make those choices carefully so as not to offend others, there is such a thing as being too careful. The leash of political correctness seems to be tightening and we are dangerously close to our linguistic awareness becoming totally counter productive.
More than once, people who are now my closest friends have admitted to me that when we first met they were slightly terrified of talking to me, for fear of saying the wrong thing. It takes several weeks for that fear to subside. I instantly want to hug them and ask them why in the world they would ever feel that way. I am someone who is pretty much an open book from the get go. Most times I laugh at the absurd situations my disability instigates before anyone else will. I'm notoriously hard to offend; if I am offended, I have no issue with saying so.
I may be disabled and as a wheelchair user I may need help with odd things that everyone else can do without thinking twice, but I’m a person just like everyone else. I'm outgoing and talkative. I am in no way anti-social, so the idea that anyone – let alone some of my closest friends – were afraid to talk to me when we first met is as perplexing as it is sad.
A few weeks ago, mindlessly scrolling through my Facebook feed, I saw an angry post from one of my oldest friends, who also has cerebral palsy. She was railing against a blog about changing attitudes towards disability, which included a tip sheet of acceptable behaviours.
The first thing on the list was to use "people first" language; that is to say, "Layla is a person with a disability,"; rather than "Layla is disabled." Okay, yes, it is important to be aware of the difference between those two turns of phrase. But it is not so important that you must avoid the term "disabled person" for fear of being excommunicated. I use both of those terms interchangeably and do not find one less acceptable than the other. In fact if I use the term ‘disabled person’ and a non-disabled person tries to correct me, I find it infuriating. I understand the difference. The only time I will accept correction is from another disabled individual, if they happen to have a preference regarding how they are addressed.
The other one that made me want to scream was, “Feel free to use common phrases such as ‘see you later’, ‘great to hear from you’, or ‘walk with me’ with people with disabilities.” Oh. My. God. Thank you so much for telling me! I’ve been fighting the urge to scream at my friends every time we’re going somewhere local and they suggest we walk. It’s so good to know this is allowed!
Give me a break. Please. Sanctifying the use of the most basic colloquialisms in such a way sends a message that the use of such common phrases is not okay, unless given express permission by a member of the minority it may affect. This is so counterintuitive it makes me want to cry. “In case you didn't know, we're disabled; we give you permission to use the most widely accepted colloquialisms known to man, but only if you promise never to forget that we could be offended!”
What happened to trusting common sense? Yes, you will encounter individuals who are insensitive and say things they shouldn't. Humans are fallible creatures. It does no good to create a box of political correctness so small that people are afraid to say anything at all. These types of finite linguistic confines are in fact very segregating and stand to undo all of the inclusivity they were imposed to create.
Here's a radical idea: If you don’t know how to speak to a person with a disability, ASK THEM! Odds are, they or someone with them will tell you how they prefer to be addressed, or terminology that should be avoided.
I’ll give you a few things to keep in mind from where I sit. Avoid terms like “cripple” and “lame”. Even if you hear people in wheelchairs using such terms amongst themselves, there is a world of difference between a wheelchair user choosing to use such words in ways that they control and take ownership of, and having those terms hurled at them by someone else, often with negative and derogatory connotations.
If you’re unsure of anything, for God’s sake, ask. Never assume and don’t stand there awkwardly, afraid to open your mouth. If you’re engaging in conversation with a person with a disability, they are able to answer your questions. It’s always better to ask than to not.
I was at a surprise party a few years ago, and when we were in the crouch-in-the-dark phase of hiding a straggler came in. After a few minutes, he groaned loudly and slowly straightened his knees a little. “Oh my God!” he exclaimed, “I can’t crouch anymore; I have to stand up! My legs!”
He was right next to me and I couldn’t resist. “I’m so sorry,” I cooed in the dark. “By all means, use your working legs. Stand right up!” Slowly, through the dark, he registered that I was sitting in a wheelchair. “Oh crap! I’m so sorry,” was all he kept yelling. Everyone started laughing hysterically and I was getting high fives all night. He just kept apologizing. Eventually I had to say to him, “It’s really okay. I was only joking. And I made the joke. You’re allowed to laugh.”
There is such a thing as “politically correct” overkill and it is fast creating a culture of linguistic fear mongering. It isn’t necessary to overthink absolutely everything. Basic common sense will get people a lot farther than they’re sometimes led to believe.
It’s okay to ask questions. It's okay to laugh.
By Layla Guse Salah
DTN, Social Media Manager