Tuesday, 10 July 2012

On the semantics of personhood

Twice this week, I've seen someone online get angry at the use of the phrase "non-disabled" to describe a person who doesn't have a disability.   Twice I've seen people argue that the general term "people" should be used to describe the non-disabled, which in an actual sentence would look like this:

"Both people with disabilities and people can benefit from closed captioning."

I have two problems with this, and the first is that it looks and sounds bloody silly.  It's like saying "both black cats and cats enjoy fish for dinner."  It's just nonsense.

The second, though, is about the assumptions and mindset behind such reasoning.  If "people" is somehow different from "people with disability", then the underlying assumption is that people with disabilities aren't really people.

This isn't a new idea.  Disabled people have spent lifetimes being shut away in institutions not because it was in our best interests but because it was convenient - it was easier than making the community more accessible and taking everyone's needs into account, and it saved the Real People the discomfort of having to look at and interact with someone who was Not Like Them.

The fact that a young woman in a first world country is told repeatedly she's remarkable and inspirational as she goes about her everyday life because she uses a wheelchair suggests that we're really not that far from the mindset that people whose bodies or brains work differently somehow don't, can't, and shouldn't be out and about doing normal people stuff. That we're not really people.


We're cute when we pretend to be people, like dogs wearing sunglasses.  But when we start demanding access to Real People jobs, Real People facilities, and even the Real People Olympics, suddenly the dog's taken off its sunnies and is registering to vote and the cute's got all uncomfortable and weird.

I can't help but wonder how a non-disabled person who objects to being described as non-disabled would cope with being called a spaz, retard, nong, freak, fuck up, or any of the various other charming epithets I've had thrown at me over the years.

"Non-disabled" is a precise term, a phrase used to impart a particular meaning when differentiation between populations with and without disability is necessary.  To suggest it's an insult isn't just drawing a long bow, it's an insult in itself to those of us who have had genuine slurs thrown at us.

And for the record, you could get around the whole thing by saying:

"People with and without disability could benefit from just calming the fuck down."