Thursday, December 08, 2011

Thanks Inspector Lewis

I almost always cringe when I hear people with disabilities being referred to on television programmes. It's like people who write these things have no idea what to call us. I understand, in part, their dilemma. There have been so many euphemistic ways to refer to disability that it's easy to pick up the idea that one is never to mention the 'dis' part of 'disablity'. People struggled to 'invisiblize' us in language - well, that's a nice way of putting it, probably a more accurate way would be to say that an effort was made to 'euthanize' 'disability' from language.

I think 'physically challenged' is the one that I hear most often. That and 'intellectually challenged' or 'mentally challenged'. I get what these things are trying to do - but that's the problem, these are words that are just trying too hard. Disability is. Disability will be. It's simple, accurate, and, for me, identity. I sometimes get lectures from people, mostly non-disabled, about how the 'dis' on the word is 'non validating'. Um, when sonmeone without a disability tells me with a disability how a word is supposed to make me feel, are they, in fact telling me what the word means in their mind - but I digress.

Over the last couple of weeks we've been watching the box set of a detective series, 'Inspector Lewis'. We've been enjoying it. On one of the episodes there is a character with a disability. I watched for how they would portray her in the plot line and how they would refer to her in the script. They were pretty good. She had a disability, they referred to the disability, the even called her a wheelchair user at one point.

There was a moment, when in frustration, Lewis, refers to this 'what do we call people with disabilities' thing and said, something like, 'I guess to me she's just differently normal.'

That sat in my head for a moment.

Here I need to say, do not misunderstand my meaning, I like the word 'disability', I use it. I am not a euphemism. However, I liked the attitude behind the 'differently normal' ... again, I'd never use this as a way to describe disability, but I liked the attitude. I think that because that's an expression that applies to every single person I know. Everyone is just slightly off center. I don't think that God ever intended to hit dead center on the genetics dart board. It seems to me that every person I know, I've got to make a bit of allowance for. And, trust me, I know, that every single person has to make allowance for me - and not because of my disability.

Difference is normal.

What a refreshing point of view.

I get so damned annoyed when people say 'oh, well, we all have a disability in some way'. It's not true and it's patronizing. More than that it takes away my community - makes disability issues, which are very specifically disability issues, somehow less relevant and certainly less compelling. It also takes away from me my history as a disabled person and trivializes my real sense of oppression by people who have those 'inconveniences disabilities' that they keep referring too.

But understanding that difference is just part of normalcy, I was really good with that. I don't know who wrote the programme but it was simply a terrific episode of a terrific series. Joe and I are now beginning to incorporate into our personal lexicon the term 'differently normal'. Like, after an encounter with a really officious parking attendant the other day - Joe said, 'Ah, the world made richer by the differently normal.' I laughed. Then once when a guy was really, really helpful, in the kindest way possible, I said, 'Now that's the kind of differently normal you want to run into in your day.'

It's even helped me in teaching. The other day I taught an abuse prevention class and there was someone there who had difficulty sitting quietly, before that would have annoyed me as a teacher, but, hey she's just 'differently normal' ... that's just who she is and how she is. I know all sorts of people who can't sit quietly anywhere - and they always seem to go to the same movies as I do. So big deal, that's just how she's normal in a different way. Irritant was gone.

So, here's to being disabled and living in the world along with the 'differently normal'. Aye, there's the challenge too!


wheeliecrone said...

One of the most valuable lessons that my parents taught me was, "Different doesn't mean better or worse. It just means different." And wouldn't the world be a boring, colourless place if we were all the same?
"Differently normal" is a new way of expressing that concept, perhaps. I suspect that it will become part of my language too, Dave.
Thank you.

Andrea S. said...

I like the term "differently normal" too!

Louna said...

A great post, again. I love the paragraph about "Disability is", and I'm probably going to quote it (with appropriate references) in a presentation on PWDs that I'm going to give in a seminary about minorities in the US. You wrote at some point that we are all allowed to use contents of your blog in that way, but I thought I'd let you know, (Oh, and I know you're not from the US, but the language is the same, so...)

theknapper said...

Love that!

Tamara said...

I suspect the terms to replace "disability" probably come more from parents of kids with disabilities - like me. Further, I suspect that it comes more specifically from the fight to get our kids a decent education and the best services we can.

When you are hit with "professionals" every day who only see the disability and use that disability to deny your child access to the educational services they need, you start to look for ways to make them see the "abilities".

Yes, they need help - and we fight for that too - but they don't need to be in a room at the end of the hall and treated like they're 4 when they're 14.

Living with my kid every day, I get the differences, but I also get the samenesses.

But, when you're talking language, the more I read about different terms, the more I agree with Shakespeare. A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet, and disability by any other name is still disability. Rosa's Law changed "mental retardation" to "intellectual disability", but the definition for both is the same.

It is what it is.

I don't think changing the terms from disability to one of the "challenged" terms really does anything. I have no intention of telling you how you should feel, but I don't think it euthanizes disability from language - nor do I think the "dis" is non validating".

And, ultimately, I think the whole disability community spends way too much time worrying about the words they use instead of focusing on educating the ignorant on the meanings of the words and how to meet needs without destroying rights.

Some people get really angry and hurt when their child is called a "mongoloid" - usually by someone who is not being cruel and who is older and grew up with that term. Why waste your time getting angry and hurt over three syllables coming out of someone's mouth with no intention to hurt you?

Colleen said...

Language and attitude are so closely twined together. Sorry to be the voice of dissent. I think I get what you are saying here Dave but I cringe at adopting the word "normal" to describe well just about anybody.

For so long people have had so many horrible things done to them in the name of "normal" or because they could not measure up to "normal". I think "normal" is a pretty arbitrary concept usually defined by the people with power to mean like them and woe to those who can't or won't be like them. I realize that is not the context of "differently normal" but isn't it amazing how through history the terms used to refer to people with disabilities get twisted by the attitudes until they are commonly used as derogatory terms.

I think it is good that we struggle with the language we use to talk about people with disabilities because maybe at the same time we will be struggling with the attitudes. Until society changes those attitudes to recognize our common humanity the language will just never sit right.

Anonymous said...

I really love that term, "differently normal". I do think that people worry too much over trying not to use "disabled", in fact, the first time I heard of the phrase, "physically challenged" I laughed my butt off, and people looked at me strangely before I realized that it was (apparently) a serious and common term.

If more people considered us "differently normal" rather than someone who needs fixing so we can live in the world, perhaps more people would see that accessibility is a needed, normal thing. Maybe there would be less fighting to get people to go up stairs and more fighting for ramps as an alternative. (Hey, a girl can dream!)

Fun Mum said...

curious... how do you like 'differently abled'?

Dave Hingsburger said...

Fun Mum, I don't like any of those kinds of things, so it surprises me that I enjoyed the concept of 'differently normal' ... it didn't seem to be a disability thing to me though. I don't like 'differently abled' because I'm not, nor is any one else with a disability that I know. I get around differently but I am not 'abled' differently. The things I am good at, I am good at. Justin Hines is a wonderful musician and he's maybe 'differently abled' because he can write music and I can't, but not because he gets around in a wheelchair - what does that have to do with ability? So, no, I don't like those kinds of terms.

lillytigre said...

I once had a person who was trying to classify based on my disability ask me Well what should I call you? (ie disabled physically challenged, differently abled) Before I even thought much about how it might sound, because I knew this person meant no disrespect he was trying to learn proper terms. I said how about Laura, cause ya know that's my name. While it's nice that people are trying to be more inclusive and less dehumanizing in terms of disability I think we are all to hung up on labels. Unless there is reason to classify every one in such a way... I see no need for them. My standard answer to such questions now is to give people my first name. Because I do NOT meet new people by greeting them with HELLO I HAVE CP and my name is.... how weird would that be :D

Kristin said...

I love the way differently normal captures what I've been trying to teach my kids. What a fabulous outlook and expression.

Max Neill said...

I think this is one of those issues with no 'right' answer (but plenty of wrong ones) which is why it gets discussed so much. As long as people with disabilities have less power than others in society, the language generally used about people with disabilities will tend to support and justify that disempowerment.

Also it's clear that the more tortured and unusual the language we use, the more ripe that language is to be turned against people with disabilities, hence the glee with which some 'Daily Mail' types have taken up the 'politically correct' language of the 1980s as a stick to beat people with.

Language does reflect attitudes, and the words we use are without doubt important. If we're conscious of how language contributes to oppression then we can try to seek alternatives, but we should never imagine that language is a magic wand, and that just by changing something's name, we change the social relations that gave that word the denigrating and disempowering connotations that we're trying to avoid.

Changing those social relations requires much deeper work.

Nan said...

I love "differently normal!" When I used to give talks . . . to parents, teachers ... I always made sure to emphasize the point that my daughter (and others with disabilities) did NOT have special needs, but very typical needs (a la Maslowe) that sometimes needed to be met in special ways. By focusing on the so-called "special" needs in place of the typical needs, we were doing everyone a grave dis-service. I found focusing on typical needs (food, shelter, sense of belonging etc...) we gathered more energy and creativity to make respectful and inclusive solutions, and sometimes things that seemed to be problems simply disappeared as "problems" but became opportunities. This "differently normal" speaks to me of that too.

Nan said...

I have a button stuck to my bulletin board here. A great inspiration--Mary Anne Kazmierski--gave it to me eons ago. It reads "Normal is a setting on the dryer." Thought Colleen might enjoy.

lillytigre said...

hhahahaha Normal is a setting on a dryer I LOVE IT

Roo's Mom said...

Love your post! My daughter has Down syndrome and I've had issues with terminology since she was born. That's one of the many gifts she has given me thus far. I adore Inspector Lewis, and want to go back and watch the episode you're referring to!