Sunday, February 18, 2007

It's downright crippling....

I've been watching TV for ten minutes now. In that time I've heard Newt Gingrich use the word "crippling" (in the context of the Iraq war) and Condoleeza Rice use the word "disabling" (in the context of North Korea) in negative ways.

These words are jumping out at me from the screen. I've become more aware recently of the power of the language we use. It maintains the status quo, it reaffirms our assumptions and it also is evidence of our mindsets - positive or negative.

I've heard the word "cripple" (and its variations "crippled" "crippling") a lot lately. And some people might dismiss what I'm writing as a semantic discussion - and even tell me I should get out more.

But the reason it bothers me is what this use of language leads to. The negative connotations are bad enough. But it leads to direct usage at us.

Yesterday I was in Target. I passed a female shopper with a preschool daughter. The child pointed at me in my wheelchair and asked her mother "What's wrong with her?"

Her mother replied "She's a cripple."

"What's a cripple?" the kid asked.

OK. Stop the camera. My stomach is churning with anger . I'm getting ready to use my gross motor movement in a negative way. I look right at the mother, who avoids eye contact with me.

She replies "A cripple is someone who is different from us."

"Excuse me," I piped up.

"Hi," the kid said.

"Hi," I replied. "May I make a suggestion?" I asked the mother.

The mother was looking at me with outright shock. For all I know she was thinking "It speaks". "What?" she asked me.

I took her out of earshot of the kid and said "The word cripple offends me. Calling us people with disabilities is really better."

"OK," she said uncertainly. Then she added "I didn't know you could hear me."

Whenever we use language in a negative or derogatory way, people hear us. In this instance, I was more concerned that her daughter heard her - and I told her that. The truth is, we never know who overhears us.

And another thing - people with disabilities are not different from anyone else. But that's for another day.


Sarah said...

This is what Jesus meant in today's Gospel, isn't it, Ruth? Thanks for the wake-up call. I'm reeling that this lady, apparently with all of her intelligence intact, didn't know you could HEAR her. So I am outraged for you, and I'm SURE my response would have had far less charity than yours. Kudos and blessings to you.

Ruth said...

Turning the other spoke guard isn't so easy sometimes. Thanks, Sarah.

Dirty Butter said...

As dense as this lady was, I fear your suggestion went in one ear and out the other.

SHE's the one who can't hear!!!!

Susan said...

Maybe the Mom was trying to do her best. That ever occur to you? That everyone you meet isn't deeply into your particular linguistic model? That this Mom might have her own problems, maybe unemployment, maybe her husband is violent, maybe one of her children is mentally ill, maybe her mother has Altsheimers and everyone is wondering what do to about that, maybe she just got fired and no one knows how the rent will get paid?

IT'S NOT ALL ABOUT YOU. That you are disabled doesn't excuse you from the ordinary rules of human empathy and forgiveness.

goldchair said...

Susan - personally attacking those of us with disabilities when we speak up for ourselves and others with disabilities about how it's not okay to call us "cripples" is a common response unfortunately . People are not "entitled" to label others and call them derogatory names or as you imply insult people in wheelchairs if they have personal problems. Geesh.

Anonymous said...

Susan - you sound threatened by the fact that someone who is disabled spoke up. I guess that's why you're playing games and making up stories about "this poor woman" and turning her into a victim? Or are you just afraid that more of us will expect to be treated with respect?

Anonymous said...

Great story!!

Susan took her comment over to David's blog, too. I responded over there, if anyone in interested.

I'm so pleased that you spoke up. My thought (as was yours, probably) is that we need to give people the benefit-of-the-doubt. If they don't know better, they can't do better. You gave her a chance to do better. Whether she does or not is not under your control.

(BTW, LOVED the "I'm getting ready to use my gross motor movement in a negative way." Priceless!)

Thanks for sharing. It gives us all thing something to think about, even "Susan", I hope! :)

Lee P.

Susan said...

we need to give people the benefit-of-the-doubt.


Anonymous said...

Blogging is not for the faint-of-heart, huh, Ruth?

Just sending a little love your way. I named Susan "The Winner" over on David's blog. I just gave myself the random authority...hope you don't mind!!

Not sure what she wants, although she did mention a "thank you" to parents would be nice. I left that out before. So here's an official THANK YOU (seeing as I gave myself unlimited authority and all...)

xoxo, Lee :) Hang in there. Your voice is important, as I've told David many times before.

Ruth said...

Finding common ground on any issue is always a good thing. Let's summarize here: I simply asked this woman if I could make a suggestion and she agreed. Our conversation was short and respectful on both sides. She acknowledged that her choice of language was poor, saying she didn't think I could hear her.

Perhaps I should have posted about the time a friend and I in our wheelchairs were surrounded by a group of teenagers who screamed "freaks" at us repeatedly and threw objects at us - certainly an extreme case like that is less open to misinterpretation as an objection to language that is not politically correct. It is also, sadly, an outgrowth of a society that labels some of us and then uses language to dehumanize us.

In any event, I forgive folks who , out of ignorance, anger or other reason use derogatory language and/or treat me in dehumanizing ways. Feigned ignorance about such behavior is a common response when it is challenged.

Forgiving is not the same as forgetting . It is from these experiences that I've resolved to work toward improving things for the next generation of people with disabilities.

Ruth said...

Lee- blogging is not for the faint of heart! And I, too, offer a thank you to all parents of children with disabilities.

Anonymous said...

Whenever someone calls me by a derogatory name, I take them aside and let them know. Why? Because I'd want to know if I did it (even unintentionally) to them so I could stop doing it. And if I did it intentionally, shame on me. Simple as that.

Wheelchair Dancer said...

That is amazing. Every time something like that happens, I am surprised -- but, really, there's no excuse for this kind of ignorance.


Scott Rains said...


It is a powerful witness to have you share how this encounter made you feel - and carry over the heightened sense of the power of words in other contexts. Paulo Freire developed an entire methodology of literacy education that involved "reading" the political intent of words. I thought it was insightful when you observed, "Feigned ignorance about such behavior is a common response." It is a strategy used by perpetrators to hide behind the ambiguity of langauge and sap you of the will to resist injustice.

There was a defensive post by one respondent commenting on the hard job parents have. Over the years I have developed a way of responding to these (common) occurrences that takes the burden off the parent for a moment.

I address the child.

Usually it is the child who initiates with a question - and the parent who responds by passing along inaccurate information to a new generation. I answer the child's question with accurate information. The child is almost always intrigued that a "stranger" - an adult at eye level in a wheelchair - would treat their question with respect.

They have entered into the adult world by asking such probing questions. Doing it in public and in my presence as an educator never fails to remind me that I am an essential part of that proverbial village that it takes to raise child.

In situations like this I consider myself privileged to be in a graced moment; a teachable moment. What I am able to accomplish in that moment is the disruption of the mechanism of prejudice.

Think about it. We ourselves were socialized into prejudice by the same mechanism operating unencumbered. There are moments when the most powerful subversion of prejudice is the unexpected assertion of the truth by the oppressed.

Rosa Parks prepared for years at her church and at Highlander Center but when it was time she knew it. And the rest is history.

Ruth said...

Thank you so much for your kind and thoughtful comment.

The way you address this situation, as a teachable moment, is wonderful. Your comment will help not only me, but others who read this who seek inclusion and have the courage to do what they are called to.

seahorse said...

I applaud you for your dignity and care for the child of that mother. You took a negative situation and tried to create a positive learning experience. I really hope the child benefits somehow, one day. It's these daily acts of solidarity and defiance of what is perceived as the 'norm' that help change attitudes.

Ruth said...

Thanks to both you and WD for your comments. Always good to know we're not alone out there!

Anonymous said...

Susan, get a clue. Replace "cripple" with the n-word, and then tell us how we should consider that that maybe the woman was unemployed. That's absurd.