Language Awareness & Disability Etiquette

Internet Resources

Common stereotypes to avoid: Families, particularly spouses of people with a disability, are exceptionally heroic for living with a fate worse than death.
The primary tool or WEAPON terrocrats use to subjugate, control, and dominate their victims is WORDS. By "terrocrat" I mean "coercive political agent" or "terrorist bureaucrat." A terrocrat is always an individual human being.
Frederick Mann
The word is used metaphorically by the computer scientist Peter Wegner (Brown), who in a number of places argues that, "algorithms are autistic" and by a group of delightfully renegade economists in the "post-autistic economics network."
Humanist Archives, Humanist Discussion Group
Here's a summary of what the Star chose to publish: autistic people can't learn or communicate "even the most basic things" and are prone to aggression; autistics belong in institutions or group homes; autistics are sick and need medical treatment or we're doomed; autism is the equivalent of a tumour, which must be attacked and removed; an autistic child is a terrible, devastating, and disordered torment; only an autistic who is "fixed" enough to have a "normal" life belongs in society; only an autistic who is "fixed" can contribute to society, and all other autistics are costly millstones; there is nothing good about autistic people; and finally it would be much better if autistics did not exist at all.
Michelle Dawson
Derogatory labeling and panic-ridden descriptions of autism do nothing to enable autistic citizens to function and communicate more effectively; rather, they dehumanize and incite fear towards members of cognitive minorities, in the same way that racist language demeans, dehumanizes and incites fear towards racial minorities.
Kathleen Seidel,
An exchange of correspondence with Dr. Thomas Insel, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, concerning the manner in which autistic citizens are frequently described in autism awareness and fundraising campaigns.
Kathleen Seidel,
What's good, and what's not good, in the world of autism treatment and research? What is good and bad in media coverage of autism and the lives of autistics? Autism Diva rates it.
An exchange of correspondence with the U.C. Davis M.I.N.D. Institute about autism, vaccinations and "epidemics," and a reply from its Director, who confirms the inappropriateness of the use of "epidemic" to describe autism prevalence.
Kathleen Seidel,
Hunnybee's Autism Support
We must consider the negative impact on autistic citizens of the popular practice of referring to autism as an "epidemic," a "tragedy," a "plague," a "devastating scourge," a "catastrophe," or a "demon"...
Kathleen Seidel,
What follows is an in-depth examination of Nutty Professors, in which I elucidate the concealed meanings of Brottman's disparaging analysis of cognitively and culturally distinctive citizens, and of her former colleagues, each of whom she concludes is "one of them." I analyze the author's use of emotionally charged, biased language to describe both autistic citizens and individuals with whom she has come into conflict; unveil her unarticulated assumptions and her pretext of superiority, which she asserts by highlighting the perceived inferiority of others; and reveal the extent to which the article constitutes a declaration of intent to engage in illegal, disability-based discrimination in hiring decisions by a staff member of the Maryland Institute College of Art.
Kathleen Seidel,
Problems in language occur when terminology is unclear or when terminology has been associated with negative stereotypes.
Committee on Lesbian and Gay Concerns, American Psychological Association
PC people are trying to brainwash us into believing, as they seem to, that there is no real difference between the mentally handicapped and the rest of us, but there is. To deny the difference is to reject the disability, to paper over the distinction.
Bernard Rimland
We like things/They fixate on objects. We try to make friends/They display attention-seeking behaviors. We love people/They develop dependencies. We take a break/They go off task. We have hobbies/They self-stim...
Mayer Shevin
A person may "have" a handicap but that doesn't make him a handicap. "He is handicapped" defines a person by his disability; while saying "He has a handicap" allows him to be more than "crippled."
Wm. J. Diehm
A few weeks ago we heard about new research out of UC Davis' MIND institute suggesting that thimerosal dysregulates Dendritic Cell (DC) signaling. Not really a surprise but let's look at how this may be relevant to autism, if at all. Again we'll need to look out for 'waffle words' where we would expect more specific terms. Words that hint at the direction of an effect in place of words like dysregulate and disrupt. Vague words can be misleading and may give the false impression that the immune dysregulation observed in the dendritic cells from these experiments is similar to patterns reported in autistic children. I'll try to clarify the meanings of these waffle words as I read through the paper but first let's look at the press release.
Not Mercury
Some common pitfall reactions to people with disabilities are: All that matters is your label. I feel sorry for you. Don't worry, I'll save you. I know what's best for you. Who's more anxious, you or me?
Michigan Community Service Commission
Resist the natural tendency to counter aggression or non-compliance with physical control, since merely touching someone with autism might cause them to flee.
The individuals who conceived and produced and seek to profit from this campaign clearly assumed that “adults living with autism” might not care that an organization claiming to advocate for their needs characterizes their lives as “cold and lonely,” and would be so dismissive of the potential and value of their lives as autistic people, to the point of describing their survival to adulthood as “devastating.” In fact, it is “devastating” that a public education and fundraising initiative launched by an organization formerly known for its embrace of autistic citizens of all ages and all levels of functioning, should so blatantly pander to the emotions and to stereotypes of autism held by those who are not themselves autistic.
Kathleen Seidel,
Examples of terms: Threatment: 'Treatment' inflicted under the threat of force; an all-too-common practice. Perceptually marginalized: Sane.
Shoshanna's Psychiatric Survivor's Guide
Includes: surreal, hunker down, person of interest, community of learners, up or down vote, breaking news, designer breed...
The words that we use to describe people with disabilities have changed over time, and you can construct an interesting history of attitudes toward disability by looking at the words that people use.
Douglas Baynton
Language provides us the means to communicate ideas, build and share a common vision, and grow and expand our knowledge and understanding. It can also limit our ability to do all these things. Some of the language we use in discussing Autism Spectrum Disorders drives me nuts. The topic is too important for us to settle for such lousy words and terminology. The language that really bugs me is listed here. I generally try to be positive on-line, but this is a rant, so don't expect me to offer up any suggestions.
There are also theoretical implications in the students being so glib about attributing emotional states and psychopathologies to the patient. Being presented with a person in this context immediately sets up for them an 'explanation slot' which professionals typically fill with diagnoses, explanations and prognoses.
Paul Crawford et al
The way we use language to describe people can be a very powerful way of respecting or disrespecting them as individuals. This data offers some suggestions about the way language can reflect our values.
Lynne Ewell
...admitting the way that our psychiatric knowledge is informed by the gender, race, class and the sexuality of those who write it may form part of the strategy for preventing it overlaying the voices of people we place in the role of patients. The debates over 'labelling' have deflected psychiatry away from paying sufficient attention to the very fabric of its language base and the dangers of corporate biographies linguistically entrapping individuals.
Paul Crawford, Peter Nolan, Brown
I borrow from postmodernism the de-centered model of knowledge and knowledge-making as well as the related concept of indeterminacy, and from post-colonialism the demand of subjects to speak for themselves rather than being spoken for.
James C. Wilson
What could it possibly benefit anyone to refer to unchelated autistic adolescents and adults as "lost"? Professor Haley might find some personal benefit in propagating this inaccurate and disparaging description, in that it might inspire pessimism and fear for the future in parents of autistic children, thereby motivating them to purchase his new chelator. Dan Olmsted might find some personal benefit in further promulgating this inaccurate and disparaging description, in that it heightens the drama of his stories, thereby accentuating his self-appointed role as a revealer of supposedly hidden "truths" about autism. I cannot imagine what kind of benefit this kind of inaccurate and disparaging description might offer to autistic people of any age, or to their parents, no matter what position they might hold with respect to mercury's role in autism causation. Such a description is helpful to no one and injurious or potentially injurious to everyone. It undermines optimism about the potential of children on the autistic spectrum—all of whom can be expected to grow and develop. It implies that a “successful” response to chelation is the only positive outcome that can be envisioned for an autistic child. It dismisses as inherently unworthy of consideration the experience of the great majority of people on the autistic spectrum who have not undergone chelation, or who have undergone chelation and remain autistic.
Kathleen Seidel,
Definitional power is socially distributed: the power of the mainstream is orchestrated by expert classifications of marginality that disparage others, often in the form of euphemisms.
James Valentine
The language conventions I use in writing about autism are those that have developed within the Autism Network International (ANI ) community.
In autism and dealing and describing our children, I believe that how we describe them reflects how we as parents VIEW them. The use of language in how we refer to autism directly relates to how we feel and relate to our children.
Estee Klar
Labels are frequently used to define a person's potential and value! In the process, we crush people's hopes and dreams and relegate them to the margins of society.
Kathie Snow
The only places where the use of disability labels is appropriate or relevant are in the service system (at those ubiquitous team meetings) and in medical or legal settings.
Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality
Focus on the individual, not the disability; Avoid labeling people; Emphasize abilities rather than limitations; Keep a person's disability in perspective; Talk about people in ordinary terms.
Under the guise of the preferred language crusade, we have focused on disability in an ungainly new way but have done nothing to educate anyone or change anyone's attitudes.
C. Edwin Vaughan
Autism is, to a large extent, a political construct. Why should the particular combinations of personality traits found in the autistic population be considered any more of a disorder than any other set of traits, such as optimism, extroversion, or (as already mentioned) left-handedness? The diagnostic categories reflect a social value judgment that some personality traits are less desirable than others.
Autistic Bitch from Hell
Although, for some people, the tendency to stereotype others might be difficult to control, other people may successfully overcome this tendency by implementing self-regulatory processes.
Tadesse Araya, Nazar Akrami, Bo Ekehammar, Lars-Erik Hedlund
I WAS watching a DVD of the Filipino film "Magnifico" with some urban-poor kids, when one of them shouted out, "Ay, sinto-sinto!" He was describing Magnifico's little sister with her curled arms and legs, tilted head and difficulties in speaking. It'd been a while since I heard the term, so I probed a bit to ask what she meant. She attempted a synonym: "kulang-kulang" (lacking), a term frequently used to refer to mental problems. "Retarded," another kid chimed in... In the exchange I had about "sinto-sinto," my young friends also used the term "diperensiya" (defect), which sometimes overlaps with "sinto-sinto." It's intriguing how we use this borrowed term from Spanish because the Spanish word for defect is, well, defecto. Difference is "diferencia" and that's it. So it seems that some time in our history, the Spanish "diferencia" mutated to our "diperensiya" and "defect." All that tells us that we do have a tendency to equate "difference" with "defect." That shouldn't be surprising since we're still largely a conformist society, which is part of our being agrarian. We are actually quite quick to detect differences and to attach the label "diperensiya," with its connotations of deviance.
Michael L. Tang, Phillippines
So next time you're fed up with someone and you want to call his or her intelligence or judgment into question, remember: you might be better off with insults that speak to the performance of intelligence or judgment rather than to capacity. This isn't just a matter of politeness; it's also a matter of proper English usage. Many, many morons and retards have very good judgment about some matters, whereas many, many ostensibly intelligent people make bafflingly, excruciatingly bad decisions. Why? Because some of them are knaves, and others gulls, and still others hoodlums and miscreants. That's why.
Michael Berube
Because verbal violence is at the root of all other violence, I must create a language environment where verbal abuse is truly rare. When I do find myself involved in verbal violence, I must end it quickly and honorably and put it firmly behind me.
I am writing as the parent of a high-functioning autistic boy, to urge you NOT to use this word in a metaphorical way, especially since such metaphors perpetuate the early twentieth-century idea of autism as a form of schizophrenia.
Humanist Archives, Humanist Discussion Group
'You're such a strong person to be able to deal with this.' Sure, we all look strong in public. Try being around at 4 a.m. after 5 hours of straight tantrumming or self-injurious behavior; then tell me I'm strong.
Dan Olmsted quotes Boyd Haley's callous, gratuitous, unsubstantiated statement, "these older kids are just lost" -- implying that autistic-spectrum adolescents not chelated to remove toxic metals, or for whom chelation has not been beneficial, are beyond hope, incapable of successful maturation... Haley's promotion of chelation to parents of autistic children is fueled with urgency, predictions of doom, and disparagement of autistic individuals "unsaved" by chelation. His "just lost" comment does not contribute to understanding of autism, but provides dramatic effect to the detriment of autistic individuals.
Kathleen Seidel,
The violence of blows and the violence of symbolic acts are not so easily separated. As sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argues in Language and Symbolic Power, people's dispositions, from the accents of their dialects to their reactions to symbolic forms, reflect the physical embodiment of their experiences. If we are what we feel, research on symbolic violence takes on special importance for the individuals and the society that this violence shapes.
J.L. Lemke
When non-autistic people walk out of their homes, they are "taking a walk" or "walking somewhere" or something like that. When autistic people walk out of our homes, we are... wandering! ... The assumption in all of these cases and many more is that we are just kind of moving around without any point to it. I suppose this should not be surprising, since most of what we do is described as purposeless and pointless. ... Not all those who 'wander' are lost. Or even wandering.
Our hope is to assist educators in using language and engaging in other behaviors that empower students to succeed in inclusive educational settings and communicate acceptance of individual differences.
Robin Smith, Spencer Salend, Sarah Ryan
It is a term of mild abuse directed almost exclusively at men. Such men are usually obsessively interested in an obscure subject and/or activity - the archetypal one being trainspotting.
Guardian Unlimited
If you were to think of a particular behavior as a 'symptom,' do you think it might change your reaction to the behavior or your strategy for handling it? Or what if you still called it 'behavior,' but called it an 'involuntary' or 'unvoluntary' behavior?
Leslie Packer
'My kids used to do (insert unusual/undesirable behaviour) all the time!' 'Headbanging never hurt anyone!' 'You aren't being strict enough!'
Most of us would not say, 'He/she had a behavior,' when talking about a husband or wife, a co-worker, or a boss. (You wouldn't, would you?) Therefore, we shouldn't say it about people who have disabilities!
Kathie Snow
I am not a 'person with autism.' I am an autistic person. Why does this distinction matter to me?
Jim Sinclair
Transcript of discussion: We need a word for people whose bodies and/or minds have some slight flaw or impairment, and thus do not conform to our ideas of 'normal,' and whose lives are made difficult by invidious comparisons with this norm
Barbara Wallraff, Judy Singer, R. Winkelman, P. Casey, R. Johnson
Language matters ­ as The Sun discovered after running its 'Bonkers Bruno' front page. Rod Hermeston sorts his impairments from his handicaps to offer an overview of the minefield that is disability language
Rod Hermeston
It is language that provides the key tool for communicating prejudice interpersonally and cross-generationally.
Harold Maio, Sylvia Caras
By Using Words with Dignity, We Encourage Equality for Everyone. Words With Dignity/Avoid These Words; Terms Which Should be Avoided Because They Have Negative Connotations and Tend to Evoke Pity; Preferred Terminology; Disability Etiquette.

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This page was last updated on 5 November 2008, 3:48 pm
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