Traverse City Record-Eagle

Feature Columnists

April 12, 2014

Adapted in TC: Language can help or hinder

I was on a panel at the History Center of Traverse City last month with Jim Moore of Disability Network and Melissa Claramunt of the Michigan Civil Rights Office “Words CAN Hurt, and Help: How Changing Labels and Language Empower Persons with Disabilities.”

The program was part of the HCTC’s Legends of the Grand Traverse Area, recognizing Father Fred and the Brigman’s of Camp Roy-El.

I still ponder the discussion from that evening when a story about a Texas couple, who are both deaf, hit the news last week. It seems the couple’s lost luggage was returned from the airlines with a note that read “please text-deaf and dumb.” The couple and their family were concerned that the airline wasn’t taking their upset over the note’s language more seriously.

The public comments surrounding the report focused on the airline employee — his intent, age, use of medical model words, educational level, English not being his first language and context. Some folks said that the dictionary defines someone unable to speak and hear as deaf and dumb and therefore the employee was correct.

Others said the uproar over language pointed to our “preoccupation with political correctness.” Still others expressed shock that the employee wasn’t trained by his employer to not use such an antiquated phrase.

People in my life have referred to my inability to walk by marking me with a variety of labels — wheelchair bound, mermaid, wheelchair rider, vertically challenged, handicapable, lame, spastic, paralyzed, differently-able, confined or stricken to a wheelchair, impaired, handicapped, crippled, invalid, disabled, gimp, push girl, special, exceptional, special needs and wheelchair victim or sufferer.

The parking spots I use are even referred to as handicapped rather than accessible.

“What’s wrong with you?” I’ve been asked.

When I was originally asked this question at age 18, I simply accepted the query. But after hearing this question over and over again, it dawned on me that I was also assuming there was something “wrong with me.” And, that everyone like me was “wrong.”

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