cross posted from my Media Justice Column
This is not an article about Charlie Sheen. Instead this article uses the conversations and reporting around Sheen to bring to light ableist language that is being used. My hope is to have us all think about how language is alive, and how we can make good decisions to use language that is effective yet does not oppress or isolate others.
I’ve heard all sorts of terminology around what is going on with Charlie Sheen, most overly used being “crazy,” “nut,” “loony,” and “lost/losing his mind.” Folks are also using other terms, more profane, in addition to these. What strikes me is the obvious misuse of certain terms when it comes to mental illness and disability. I have been working on this myself, especially since my mother was recently diagnosed with dementia, and thinking about what that means for my future mental wellness. I am not without misusing these terms either, however, now that these terms impact me and my family and the community I’m a part of, I’ve learned. I’ve made the conscious choice to learn and do things differently and treat language as an important part of the work I do. It’s a struggle, it’s not always easy, but it’s something I’ve committed myself to doing and it’s a process.
Caring for an aging parent really puts disability in context, especially for someone like me who enjoyed almost 25 years of being able-bodied. When I was disabled and could not walk for extended periods of time I was very isolated and had lots of time to think. It was then that I realized that being able-bodied was temporary, that I will always now be someone with a disability and how that will impact my life. How to move through the pain that is very real and impacts my sense of self and gender expression; how to cope with my body changing because of lack of movement, were all things that came at me very quickly because I was never prepared to think about such things. This is because we live in an ableist society.
Our society, and many all over the world, privileges people who are able-bodied. Yes, we have the Americans with Disabilities Act, and yes some forms of limiting access are illegal, yet that does not eliminate the prejudice that can, and often does, follow. So, as Sheen’s actions are televised and shared virtually, so are the insults, name-calling, and isolation. The ableism spreads quickly without critique or mention.
Folks, please be aware of the ableist language you use and how it harms us all. Using terms that oppress others who are living with mental illness is not trendy, funny, or appropriate. I believe that language is alive, it is important, and has power. I was writing to my homegirl Erika Lopez who has written extensively about Sheen and what he’s said and represents at her clog, but we both agree that language can do a lot of good and a lot of damage.
She share with me how some terms, that she had never heard of and are not slang, are difficult for her to understand and use properly. She shared that it challenged her, but not in a way that was affirming or that taught her anything, but in ways that made her feel inadequate. I told her I know exactly how she feels as I often find myself in that space too. I think a lot of language does this because that is the goal of some folks who use such language. I shared with her my experience in a PhD program and having to learn the language of theory, and all the big words “scholars” made up to share their ideas. They made these terms enormous as a way to only speak to the people who are members of their community. It excludes folks and that is the goal. In that exclusion it also has others doubt their own intellect, thus reinforcing an elitist space.
There are some similarities in code-switching, when folks move from one language to another (think moving from English to another language for folks who speak more than one, this includes sign language). When folks code-switch they may often do so because that is the language they are most comfortable speaking, a hybrid of more than one language. It is also a way that folks can keep outsiders out. I wrote a little about this and language in my post about Lady Gaga and her choice in using certain terms in her songs.
This is the same issue I find with the term “colorblind” when folks talk about racism and race neutrality. Affiliating people with a specific disability that impairs their vision with people who perpetuate discrimination based on race is wrong on numerous levels. Not only does it equate a disability (which can be an outcome of numerous situations from biology, age, injury, etc.) with a lack of knowledge, but it also reinforces stereotypes that people with disabilities are not intelligent, thus disposable, thus ignored.
Many of the anti-racist communities and activists use the term “colorblind” on a regular basis, even some folks who we may admire, and it is one of the reasons I have slowly removed myself from such spaces. It is not effective to think that the language we use does not isolate or impact others, especially if we do not understand how identities intersect and make us all complicated. Imagine what a person of Color with a disability or an anti-racist White person with a disability may experience when in their community of practice, their gender, race and ethnicity or culture is prioritized over their disability. None of us should ever have to be forced to choose one identity over the other. Ever.
One of the things that triggered this post for me was seeing this image come across my Tumblr dashboard. I think this image offers some great suggestions and examples of how we have such a vast amount of choices in the words we choose, why not accept this challenge of not using ableist language? The image at the time was posted at the site however at this time Tumblr does not seem to be showing that page. For now you can view it or reblog it here.