“Disabled” and Passive Language

Special interest: Our language choices can affect and even effect thoughts. This is generally known as the Weak Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. And though this generally focuses on word choice, it’s also true of grammatical choices.

One example is the debate between “person first” (“person with autism”) and “identity first” (“autistic person”) language. Disabled people (persons with disabilities) have different preferences, although the majority of autistic people appear to prefer identity first language because person first language is awkward and unnatural and, hence, emphasizes what it’s allegedly intending to downplay.

In this video, Jac den Houting mentions another one that I hadn’t consciously thought about before with regards to disability.

First, a note on structural ambiguity. What is the grammatical structure of “I am confused”?

The structure of “I am funny” is straightforward: “I” is the subject, “am” is a copula, and “funny” is an adjective. The statement gives one of my characteristics.

The structure of “Mistakes were made” is straightforward: “Mistakes” is the subject, “were” is a verbal marker, and “made” is a past participle. In this case, “were” indicates that we’re discussing events of the past, the subject is plural, and that it’s a passive sentence: We’re not specifying who made the mistakes, just that, yes, mistakes happened.

But since “confused” can be both an adjective (“He had a confused look”) and a verb form (“The textbook passage confused him”), “I am confused” is contextually ambiguous: Am I intending to indicate solely that I am in a state of confusion, or am I intending to indicate that something specific has confused me?

Let’s apply the same logic to “I am disabled”: Is my emphasis merely on my state of disability, or am I intending to indicate that something specific has disabled me?

It feels like most of the time, “They are disabled” is interpreted as referring to a state of being without a particular focus on what is disabling them. It may be relevant how someone is disabled: I am disabled in ways that don’t affect my mobility, for instance, so I don’t use accessibility parking spots. I cannot easily see to my left, so I ask that people walk to my right when it’s just the two of us.

But prior to this video, I’ve struggled to articulate the “what” of my disabilities. My prosthetic left eye, sure, that’s a disability, but the truth is, the only real way it objectively gets in my way is that I have to turn my head farther to see to my left. My situational awareness has improved such that my hearing tends to be more refined on that side. If people could remember my one single accommodation–walk to my right–my disability barely impacts me.

I had a manager once who, knowing this, would deliberately walk to my left. He said he was challenging me, forcing me to go outside of my comfort zone. He was helping me overcome my disability, he said.

No, he wasn’t. He was disabling me.

It would have been one thing if I had asked for something like that. I hadn’t. He took it upon himself to deliberately work against what is a straightforward accommodation request. (And, because he was my manager, he was violating the ADA, but it wasn’t worth filing a complaint.)

By examining the structure of “I am disabled” and looking instead at “XXX is disabling me”, I can see that “XXX” can be filled in with two sorts of things: The disability itself and environments that fail to accommodate the disability.

For every disability, both of these things play a role. We can address mitigating the disability itself, we can address mitigating the environment to accommodate the disability, or we can do both.

In some cases, as with the significant majority of neurodiverse people, we are disabled far more by our environments than by our “disability”, to the point that it’s sometimes fair to question whether there’s an underlying “disability itself” in the first place.

Sure, there are ways in which my brain gets in the way of me doing what I want.

This weekend, possibly for the first time ever, I went to a music concert by myself. A friend had a ticket they were trying to get rid of, and my spouse wasn’t interested in the bands (The Psychedelic Furs and X), so I figured, what the heck, it’s perfectly normal for a person to go by themself to such a thing. I’ll have fun.

But my anxieties started getting more overwhelming the closer I got. I had a long conversation with a friend who experiences similar anxieties, and they helped me calm down. They reinforced the plan I’d already had: I’d promised my friend a t-shirt in exchange for the ticket, so I could go in, buy a shirt immediately, and then leave if I felt overwhelmed.

The way my “social anxiety” normally works is that by far the biggest hurdle is showing up. I still had moments throughout the concert where I was anxious that I stood out because I was all alone and because I was moving around a lot, but those were less obtrusive than the thoughts on the car ride there.

So, once I got there, I stayed, leaving just before the encore because I was genuinely physically tired.

The entire night, though, I hardly said anything. My environment allowed me to do that: I spoke to two employees of the venue, a total of three words. I spoke a dozen to a t-shirt vendor. Other than that, I did my best to fold myself into the woodwork.

My father used to tell this story.

I lost my eye about the time I started speaking. After the surgery, I became non-verbal. He attributed it to the surgery and the trauma related to adjusting to being monocular; he said that I had connected “trying to speak” to the surgery, and I was afraid of future punishment if I tried to speak again.

Then one day I wanted catsup, and did my usual point-and-grunt. My family had been understanding (according to my father) up to that point, but my father had had enough.

“Use your words,” he said, “or you don’t get it.”

I pointed and grunted some more. He resisted more.

Then, finally, in perfect English, I said, “Please pass the ketchup” and have been speaking ever since.

Except, yes, but actually, not entirely. I still struggle with starting a conversation with people. When I attend a new group, I may sit silently for half an hour or longer before saying anything. When I do start talking, it’s true that I can talk on and on, to the point that people might forget how long it took me to talk in the first place.

My father was well-intentioned and I truly believe he thought my language block was entirely related to my loss of an eye. It may have been partially due to that, even largely due to that, but I believe it was also part of my autism, and that throughout my childhood many of my autistic traits were falsely attributed to CPTSD.

The relevant point of the ketchup story is that, well-intentioned though he was, my father created an environment that disabled me. He continued to do so throughout my childhood, generally under the same misguided belief that my manager had had: That he needed to push me out of my comfort zone for me to overcome my challenges.

It’s far more defensible in my father’s case: It is the role of a parent to encourage a child to grow and develop. His apparent lack of awareness of the full cause of my challenges, though, created an environment in which I learned to mask defensiveness. Now, I am working to dismantle my mask.

(I say “apparent” because he told me later that he knew far more than he let on about a bunch of stuff, so he may have known I was autistic as well.)

Disabled people have two levels to deal with: We have to deal with the way in which the disability itself gets in our way (such as my struggles with attending a new event) and the way in which our environments, including the people in those environments, create hurdles, either deliberately or out of ignorance and indifference.

“I am disabled” only tells the story that I face hurdles. It doesn’t describe the nature of those hurdles. I would encourage everyone, including myself, to reflect on which hurdles we’re creating for other people.

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