“Why Language is Important to me as an Autistic” has come up many times for me to writing a blog and a book. This leads me to what I really wanted: to help change the thoughts and perceptions around the disability community. This is done by focusing on how language is used to describe individuals and the community. Changing one’s language is not enough to make genuine change for racism, homophobia, ableism, etc. Language is a good place to start though in one’s journey in understanding in the meaning behind the words.
When lending perspective, and educating others about language, we can start change how marginalized groups are treated and viewed. This will lead to true change. Individuals who want to make this transformation can do so because shifts start at an individual level. There are many disabled advocates who have produced books, blogs, vlogs, and podcasts that talk about this issue.
Why Language is Important to me as an Autistic
Language is so important; it is more than just syllables. Words, they have power and influence and when strung together, language makes people think. One may ask, how are they are just words? Let’s break this down a bit. My area that I have done a thorough analysis on and have lived experience is disability. Words and language have been used to dehumanize marginalized groups and the disability community did not escape this. Ableism is an over-arching concept around disability and discrimination. The continued usage of horrific words and euphemisms haunts every group of the disability community differently because, as we know, no marginalized group is a monolith. I would even argue within a subsection can be unique as well.
Language and the power of it
Back to Language and the power of it, words and phrases have been used to dehumanize disabled individuals as less than the neurotypical individual With this dehumanization firmly implanted in society, horrific acts have been allowed to happen to the disability community. For instance, take the medical labels ‘idiot’, ‘moron’ and ‘imbecilic’–these are medical relics of the past. These are no longer medical diagnosis used after the American Eugenics movement popularized them. This made the case easier for Nazis in the Holocaust to remove individuals with such labels. For instance, the experiments in the T4 program (Tiergartenstrasse 4) and under the Nazi regime this included infants to seniors. The sad thing is you still hear ‘idiot’ and ‘moron’ almost daily to describe others or even using these words to describe ourselves without knowing its horrific beginnings and corrupted use.
The Reality of Disability Language
Please do not pretend or think this is a thing of the past. Dehumanizing language and the horrific treatment of the Disabled and Mentally ill is still a thing of today. There is even a split within the Disability Community of whether people should identify using person first or the other option of identity first. Personally, I use identity first as I am Autistic you cannot separate it from me, it’s not beside me and follows me like a little dog. In my writing, I use both identity and person first when speaking about the community.
When I started my education back in 2002, this concept was laid out with authority, thus being drilled into my head to use the person first concept. However, times have changed. A good rule when talking with a person who has a disability is to first always start by using their name and then ask their preference on if they prefer identity first or person first because it is not unanimous. Even within the Autistic community, with the majority of Autistic individuals using identity first, some will still use the person first concept.
The Disability Community may be one of the few communities that family members/ parents and professionals get a say on how we label ourselves and even speak on our behalf. I have not quite figured out this reason. I used to do this as I followed the norm of the community with my younger sister who has an Intellectual delay, then I realized that this was wrong. Now I say that I am amplifying her voice for what she wants and needs when others do not understand what she is asking for.
Ableist language is so prevalent, one only needs to look at a television or social media and find that disabled individuals are objects of pity or charity. Even on the evening news, anchors will use the word “crazy” which really has taken on a life of its own. Or that shows and the news portray individuals with disabilities having to overcome a tragic and disabling condition. Or, conversely, presented as superheroes for doing typical daily living activities. My yuck is when the prom king asks (insert disabled person here) to the prom there is a name for this action the late Stella Young gave a TED Talk (Link below) where she called this “inspiration porn”.
Let’s talk about some euphemisms like: “differently abled”, “special abilities”, “handi-cappable”, “special needs”, and “differently abled”. These words just need to be forgotten. Based on my research, it is my understanding that the Disability Community did not make these words. These euphemisms are not for the community. Or saying something like “the only disability is a poor attitude”. This statement may sound great, but it really it devalues and belittles the disabled person’s experience. A “good attitude” will not change the fact that a wheelchair user cannot get in one’s building/ restaurant because of the lack of a ramp and accessibility aka stairs everywhere. Seniors who use walkers probably will have issues at well.
My change in attitude will not change the fact that certain smells make me sick and give me a headache or a migraine. I do not speak for the entire Disability Community; however, these words are not what we use in Disability Justice. I will not change my language to make another more comfortable with the truth. Especially if that person does not have a disability. Disabled/disability is not a dirty word. They have their place.
This is my daily reality, and I may have sounded harsh. I have said that I had a disability, and someone commented that I must be stupid. I hold 3 degrees, one being a Masters. Also, I stated I am an Autistic Person and I have actually had someone correct me saying I am someone with Autism. This person was a psychologist. Now I ask in what other marginalized groups will they be told how to label themselves? This comes back to language and how we, as disabled people, are viewed in the world. Now some may write this off as being “woke” or being politically correct, it’s not this. It is treating every human being with value and respect and their value is not determined by what they can produce but by who they are themselves.