All opinions and views stated on this site belong solely to Corina Lynn Becker, and do not represent or reflects the views and opinions of any organizations, unless otherwise specified.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Language, Disability, and Injustice

Before I get started, I want to address something. In this piece, I use words such as, well, "words" and "speaking". This does not just apply to vocal communication. I do not limit the concept of speaking to just vocal communication, but in this piece am using the word to apply to all manners of communication: typing, sign language, picture boards, drawing, etc. For too long has speaking been considered the act of communicating vocally. I'm not using it that way here.

Also, all bold emphasis is mine

In my church, we're studying the book of James in the New Testament, in a series we call "When the Rubber Hits the Road". In this series, we're studying how lessons from the past can still be used today, particularly from James, as a majorly practical book. A few weeks ago, we were studying the first part of Chapter 3, in how we speak and even, how we DON'T speak. Now, I'm not going to summarize the whole Christian sermon, because it'll be like I was trying to push my religion on other people, but it got me thinking. The three points where about words that don't match beliefs, words that are used as weapons, and the lack of words. I'm pretty sure we get saying things that don't match what we believe in, but it's the words used as weapons, and just as importantly, when we don't speak up at all that I want to address.

Kowalski pointed out a post by Renee that asks

If a friend or relative makes a racist or homophobic remark, do you tend to confront them or let it slide? Are you more likely to confront them if it offends you directly or someone else who seems reluctant to speak up?

In the discussion, it was brought up that there are times when it takes us a while to fully process the conversation, delaying our ability to react to inappropriate remarks. Shock also tends to still our reactions, as well as uncertain relational standings where it might not feel comfortable or appropriate to approach an individual. Bev referenced Dave Hingsburger, a Canadian disability self-advocate who recently was inducted into the Canadian Disability Hall of Fame, who in 2008 came up with the idea of business cards as a way to educate and address issues such as derogatory comments, without being considered too sensitive and the effect of people just not saying those comments around you.

I think this is a very good idea. (Personally, I'd make the message more personal, in a "would you like it if someone said that to you?" kind of way, but same approach, really) It's a non-confrontational method of addressing the issue without making a big scene and potentially embarrassing not only oneself, but the person being addressed. This way, a person may be more receptive to understanding, which makes a big difference, in my experiences.

However, I believe that this can be taken to a level further. In the sermon I mentioned above, the speaker talked about a Christian's duty to speak up against injustice, that

When it comes to things like injustice and poverty and abuse and hunger and HIV/AIDS and racism, and kids dying from preventable treatable diseases, and environmental destruction, as people of faith, we cannot be silent. We have to speak. We have to put the power of words to work.

I don't think that it's just a Christian's duty to speak up against injustice. I think that it's a human's duty to speak up against injustice and to work to change the way society works in order to reduce the injustice that occurs. This is because injustice occurs that is injustice not only from a Christian's perspective, but from all manner of religions and backgrounds as well. Injustice is not exclusive. It affects everyone, in one way or another.

Injustice, of course, can take many forms, from discrimination, poverty and environmental destruction, to even the simple misuse of words, as addressed above. However, what is injustice in the Disability community? Certainly, discrimination and abuse is the most obvious form, but does it not go much deeper? Is inadequate services and supports also not an injustice? Is attempting to cure and change people to fit a pre-conceived mold that doesn't fit also not abuse and an injustice? Should we not be working to make the changes to stop this?

I think so, and certainly I don't think I'm the only one. A (rather long) excerpt from Kim's blog post
No vanilla for me, Another one bites the dust, and Insomnia

[T]here's an element of moral superiority in assigning disability status, an absolute sense that the non-disabled is superior. And I think that's wrong. I do. So, I looked at these sixty plus individuals who attend the center with my son, whom he has known for six years now, who care about him and accept him as he is, and I thought about those people who would push for cures for each of them as if who they were was inadequate, insuffient, insignificant. And I thought of those who would look at these interesting, animated individuals and see them as lacking, as less than, and I was irritated. I think that, when the support is adequate, when the acceptance and appreciation is there, these people who are unable to care independently for themselves can have very good, extremely satisfying lives. Where the support sucks, where the appreciation and respect are not there, I think their lives can by an abysmal hell.

I think that rests squarely on society's shoulders. And I think that organizations that promote the idea of vaccines as the culprit for autism damage their children's future and mine when they engage in their bullying and fear mongering tactics. I think they don't speak for me, for my children, for many of us and it's more than time to make sure that if people in mainstream society hear someone calling themselves a warrior or an autism parent and they aren't in the military and aren't autistic themselves, the mainstream will have a real clue as to the belief structure of the person they are dealing with. These parents haven't put child-centered language first in their advocacy; they've placed themselves first. It's about them. About recovering their American dream of a cushy, easy life in which their children outshine others.

To look at someone with a disability and feel sorry for them is to demean them and their inherent value. It presumes you have an elevated status above them. To look at them and feel empathy for their challenges and respect for how they persevere is to see them as fully human. To work to assist them in creating what they consider meaningful, valuable lives while working to reduce any suffering, to heal illnesses is not noble. It's the right thing to do.

Kim's post reminds me of the message by Dr. Glenn Rampton, C.E.O. of Kerry's Place Autism Services, a service provider in Southern Ontario celebrating 35 years of service:

Recently, we witnessed a monumental achievement in the fulfillment of the Government’s promise to end institutionalization for individuals living with developmental disabilities. The official closing of Huronia, Rideau and Southwestern Regional Centres paved the way for Kerry’s Place Autism Services and its community partners to engage the public in gaining a better understanding of these individuals and their right to live, participate and prosper as valued members of society. The struggle is not over, however, as we must continue to help people in communities throughout Ontario and elsewhere to overcome stereotypes and misunderstandings to understand the need for, and to create appropriate environments and supports in which individuals with autism spectrum disorder can thrive.

Now, I may be a bit biased, since I've worked with Kerry's Place for a while, and even now am active as part of community education and awareness projects. However, from my experiences, Kerry's Place has demonstrated that it is possible to make a difference, to create an environment that is supportive, accepting and safe for autistic people to become as independent as possible and fully integrated into society. It may take a lot of work, but it's a realistic goal.

This may be as simple as handing out cards when you come across discrimination, or working with different groups to overcome differences and reach understanding. It may be something small. You can always start small, but I would hope that we will work our way up to doing big things to make a large difference.


  1. My sister has a pile of business cards made by a woman with Down Syndrome about the "r" word. She hands them out to her peers when they mistakenly utter it in her presence.

    She's a good kid.

    Sometimes I don't speak up, because I'm too tired or too intimidated. But I know, if I don't speak up, who will? And if no one speaks up, what will change?

  2. Well done, Corina. I believe that one person at a time, one act at a time, one choice to stand at a time, we can work to change society to make it more accomodating and more accepting of differences, to change how disability is viewed.

  3. Excellent post. It is important to "speak up" when you notice something that goes against your personal beliefs. But it can also be challenging depending on the situation.

    Because I rarely interact with others in a meaningful way outside my circle of comfort, I tend to have a non-verbal short-hand with people. It's a signal that says "talk to me later." Sometimes they'll recognize what they said and either restate it or apologize. Other times we'll talk about it one-on-one so they can understand why I objected without being embarrassed. This tends to work for me, because it emphasizes education and changing long-term behaviors/ideas rather than short-term situations.

    When remarks come from people outside my circle of acquaintances, it's much more difficult to speak up. If people are talking about my children (or other children) within the child's hearing, I tend to call the person out; or I'll do that if an adult is visibly upset. Otherwise, I don't confront people.

    The whole business card thing might be good for me, too, though. Usually its not the confrontation itself that gives me pause, but the part where I actually have to talk to someone I don't know.


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