News reports rely on ableist language to describe societal impacts of COVID-19

Tackling discrimination requires input from disabled communities
Photo: UN Geneva
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Crippling delays. Crippling debt. Crippling lockdown.

With the world incapacitated by COVID-19, the ableist adjective “crippling” has appeared again and again in news coverage, from the Globe and Mail to the New York Times. As we struggle to describe the destructive impacts of a highly contagious virus, we’ve fallen back on language that is not only out of date but deeply harmful.

“I don’t need your euphemisms and we don’t need erasure. What we need more than anything these days is visibility.”

As a disabled person, I’ve fended off the double entendres of words like “special” my whole life. A visible disability makes my body everybody else’s business. Once when leaving a public pool on a rare sunny morning, my day clouded over when a guy saw me limping to work and smirked. “Did you get kicked by a horse?”

His casual question is hardly surprising, since “lame” is a common descriptor for everything from an underwhelming movie to an unimpressive meal.

Pop culture and parliamentary debates move quickly, but the International Day of People with Disabilities on Dec. 3 offers an opportunity to pause and reflect on the power of shared experiences and the potential of political organizing.

For writer A. H. Reaume, disability is a political identity. Just as Reaume benefits from workplace accommodations that other disabled activists fought for, she “work[s] on expanding rights for disabled people in the future and fighting against ableism in the present.”

Ableist language equates disability with deficit, focuses on individual shortcomings rather than systemic failings and involves terms that historically entrenched segregation without regard for their origins. “Cripple” is only one example, but it has acted as a rallying point for decades as disabled people reclaim the term and give it new meaning.

In contrast to the dated usage of the diagnostic adjective, Reaume embraces the verb “crip” as “a way of inhabiting disability that seeks to undo ableist notions and undo cultural assumptions and undo structural inequalities.”

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Another movement to reclaim derogatory language got its start in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood and has since gone global. In 1993, community members organized the first Psychiatric Survivors’ Day. By 2002, the annual event changed its name to Mad Pride to centre the culture and history of people labelled with mental illnesses. Mad with a capital “M” remains an identity to celebrate and a means to fight stigma.

South of the border, Crip the Vote shows how reclaiming language can shift political priorities. Since 2016, the non-partisan campaign has brought together disabled voices on Twitter to discuss disability issues, increase voter engagement and encourage political candidates to consider the concerns of disabled people.

This approach became even more important as governments responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. As Crip the Vote organizer Alice Wong wrote, “In 2020, two aspects of my life have been politicized and thrust into the spotlight: ventilators and voting by mail.”

Whether celebrating Mad Pride or sharing hashtags, it’s only by articulating shared experiences that disabled people can come together and push for change. The movement calls on grassroots allies and government agencies to accept and adopt the language chosen by disabled communities.

“I don’t need your euphemisms and we don’t need erasure. What we need more than anything these days is visibility,” says Lawrence Carter-Long, director of communications at the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. If disability is not named, then there is no way to analyze the discrimination faced by people trying to access education, employment, housing, and healthcare.

Because navigating bureaucratic requirements often compounds trauma, tackling ableism demands more than just changing language.

Neil Belanger agrees that disability is too often overlooked. Drawing on his experience as executive director of the British Columbia Aboriginal Network on Disability Society (BCANDS), he says, “We find that a disability lens is lacking in most policies, in most procedures, in most legislation.”

Raising the profile of disability issues for all governments, including the leadership of Indigenous communities, is why BCANDS created Indigenous Disability Awareness Month. For Belanger, events throughout the month of November are a chance to “demonstrate the overwhelming capacity, resilience and contributions that Indigenous people bring to every community across Canada.”

BCANDS is uniquely positioned to work with Indigenous communities already combatting the impacts of colonialism and integrate disability supports alongside other urgent needs. Belanger explains that for Indigenous people trying to access services, “you go through often very harsh, harsh realities of the past, and that could be residential school or it could be abuse … to reaffirm your disability.”

Because navigating bureaucratic requirements often compounds trauma, tackling ableism demands more than just changing language. Reaume sees a direct link between language that sets disabled people apart and systems that perpetuate oppression. In the case of people who are Mad, Reaume points to the “carceral systems of mental healthcare [that] take away agency from people who are experiencing mental health issues.”

Similarly, for Carter-Long, “whether it’s employment discrimination or danger to our very lives because of police violence or assisted suicide, all of those things are real.”

Ensuring that disabled people provide input on everything from local priorities to national strategies means asking more questions. As Belanger says, “If there’s new infrastructure coming in, how are you ensuring universal design?”

Disabled communities are ready to lead conversations about what an equitable COVID recovery looks like. People must “dare to ask those tough questions and think about what the answers might mean before we open our mouths or put it to paper,” says Carter-Long.

Editors’ note: Ricochet has published articles that used “crippled” or “crippling.” We aim to no longer do so.
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