Monday, November 10, 2008

Language, Disabilities, and Convenience

In Dave Hingsburger’s blog yesterday, he writes:
“One of the theatre staff walked by and made reference to all the 'wheelchairs' waiting for the elevator. Now I'd been quiet about the elevator status, after all these things do happen. But, I was extremely pissed about being referred to as a 'wheelchair'. I am not my chair. It's the person in the chair that bought the ticket and will see the movie.”

A reader commented:
I want to point out another possible interpretation to being referred to as "wheelchairs," like the situation you described. Could it be that the word "person" is omitted not because a wheelchair-user is being objectified, but rather the opposite, that the humanness is so obvious that it doesn't need to be mentioned? Couldn't it be similar to saying "Look at all those cowboy hats!" or having a route designated for "motorcycles only."
Or I think of a situation in which I was insensitive. I was looking for someone I had never met in a crowded lobby, and when we met (I was late), he asked if I had trouble finding him. I replied, "No, I was told to look for the wheelchair, and here you are" (or something like that). Obviously I wasn't denying his humanity, but humanity was something he shared with 100 other people in the room. The wheelchair was what made him easy to recognize. Now, looking back, I see it may have been really rude. And I certainly don't mean to condone it. But at the same time, I wonder if the hurt derived from such statements may sometimes be due to false assumptions about those who said them or the attitudes behind them. I don't know. But it's bothering me, so I decided to share...

(Back to Me)
In Dave’s case, I believe that he was right: the omission of “people in” before “wheelchair” was indeed demeaning. But sometimes we are oversensitive, when a label is used as the easiest way to say something, without any demeaning intention. (But, for example, the commenter should have been told to look for the PERSON in the wheelchair”, or “he’s using a wheelchair.”)
My ex husband, who was dark-skinned, was a rarity in Israel, in the days before the Ethiopian immigration. When I had to ask someone to call him over from the men’s side of a wedding celebration (here men and women celebrate in separate spaces), it was much easier to call “a spade a spade”, and say would he please call to the lobby the religious guy who happens to be black. It has, to me, no more insulting connotations, than saying “the guy in the purple shirt” (which in white-shirted religious circles would be even more on an oddity than a black man).
So by the same token, if I would be at a play and another mother would ask me who my daughter is, I would reply “in the pink dress” if she was the only one with pink. Or even “the one in the pink furthest to the right”. But if they are ALL in pink, I would have no qualms saying “the girl with Down syndrome on the right”, because it IS a characteristic, and a very identifiable one, at that! (But I wouldn’t say “the Down syndrome on the right.”) It IS part of what she is, like dark-blond hair and short stature.

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