Sunday, December 18, 2011


So, in my quest to find out What Would Readers Do, here is a question for you:

Joe and I went over to the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum) to see the exhibit on Mayan culture. I joined the ROM after moving to the city and we get our money's worth. We like the place. We visit often. It's a combination between two buildings, one old, one new, so it's a bit tricky to navigate in a wheelchair but, for the most part, I get to where I want to go.

As we arrived just at lunch we went down and had a bite to eat and were in high spirits and ready to see the exhibit. The ROM does know how to put on a show and we were really enjoying the displays and the information posts were actually interesting. On going through I began to notice something, to me, interesting. There are several carvings, representations, bowls and whistles that had images of dwarfs. At first I thought I might be imagining it, but after the sixth or seventh image, I became curious. I saw no mention of them and what they might represent in Mayan culture anywhere. (Now realize, I didn't look at absolutely every written description, I could have missed it.) However, when I saw a ROM employee talking to some people, answering questions and the like, I approached her.

She said that she was indeed with the ROM when I asked her if I could pose a question to her. She said that she would try and answer. So I mentioned that I am interested in disability history, art and culture and as such I noticed that the image of dwarfs and wondered why that was. What was the significance, and by the preponderance of images there must be a significance, to the Mayan people? She looked very uncomfortable at the question and then she started talking about dwarfs and "crippled" people as perceived by various cultures. My face must have registered shock at the use of the world "crippled" but she carried on, using the word two or three more times. I felt no hostility from her, just deep discomfort at the question (or the question asker, I'm not sure) so I just listened to her, not stopping her and correcting her.

I don't know why I didn't say anything. I didn't have a good sleep and was tired. I didn't have the energy for a confrontation. I just didn't and after having left, regretted not having done so - I think she would have been receptive.

Now, here's the question, should I just let it go, or is it letter writing time?

I know that it's important to pick your battles. But I also think that if the institution gets involved one of two things will happen - one is that they will just send a polite note thanking me for my feedback, two it will grow out of proportion and the woman will get a severe reprimand when all I want is someone to say, "Hey, you might want to use the word 'disabled' rather than 'crippled'."

So ... I'll do what the majority of people want me to do.

How's that for sloughing the decision making responsibility off my shoulders and on to yours!


Becca said...

Delurking here.

I'm not sure what you should do. If you do write a letter, you might also mention the lack of museum coverage of the dwarfs. It seems to me that this isn't an issue limited to just one group.

I live in New York City, and a few months ago a friend visited from out of town and we went to a bunch of museums, as one does. When we went to the Natural Museum of History, I was really disturbed to see artifacts from Native American cultures right next to dinosaurs. I didn't say anything, maybe I should have.

Happy said...

Life's too short to fight every battle. If you'd had the emotional energy for it, you could have said at the time "I'm sure you're unaware of this, but the word 'crippled' is often seen as pejorative because.."* But it seems like a small thing compared to all the medium and large battles, not to mention the time you need to wall off for yourself and your family, to carry it on now.

*(Honestly, I'm not sure why crippled is not an acceptable word, even though I am one now.)

Susan said...

Dearest Dave, I hereby give you permission to take a day off once in a while without feeling guilty - and not to eeyore about it for the next three months.

(Because you would do the same for me.)

Anonymous said...

Dear Dave,

you do not have to fight every battle. But it is noteworthy that you have the responsibility to do so deeply carved into yourself, so that you have to ponder about whether you should have done it or not.

And sometimes event to me being disabled myself the term "crippeld" is not that bad. If it is used in terms like dwarfism (or my own fingers, who do look kind of diffrent from other peoples) where limbs seem to be knotted, it is simply a "description".

Like an oak-tree that is crippeld by centurys of wind...

Ther should be some information about the little people on the exhibits. Maybe someone is doin some serious research about this right now.

But you should only do something about it if you feel so uncomfortable with this experience that it will disturb you if you do nothing about it.

Sometimes even fighters for disability rights have the right to take a little time off.


Anonymous said...

By the way, yesterday and today I had to think very hard about you and your blog. - Because while shopping in a german supermarket (mall) I found a little box of SKITTLES at the cashiers desk.

Bought one and am enjoying its "artificiall goodness" right now.

Julia (from Germany)

Rachel in Idaho said...

I think this is one circumstance where I would have been able to speak up, which I find kind of funny. You are much more vocal about these things than I usually am, so I can see how it was the last straw for you where it'd make a good starting point for me. I think you should go back and talk to her in person; as you say, a letter might end up causing a brouhaha, but she really ought to know. I wish I could go with you just to see the expression on her face. *evil grin*

And if you find out anything about the significance of dwarfism to the Maya I would be incredibly interested learning about it myself. I know there's some scultures but no more than that. Our history is scattered and there's not much known and what is tends to be from the last few hundred years and is largely beyond depressing.

Andrea S. said...

Since you go to this museum regularly, I would suggest keeping an eye out for her the next time you go, start a conversation with her about whatever, then gently work it in. Like you, I would worry that writing a letter in this context would either result in too little or in too much.

Lene Andersen said...

Hm. I am of two minds. On the one hand, I'm a big fan of taking the opportunity to educate people, on the other hand, there is the possibility that such a letter will resort in a much more severe "education" than you'd hoped. To me, any education should be done in the spirit of cooperation and kindness (well, maybe not in certain cases, but in most) and I think the risk of management not doing here is too great. It's probably best if you don't write the letter.

sometimes, you can address the problem by going around the obstacle another way. Does your membership to the ROM include access to special exhibits or do you have to pay for that? Because there's the option of going back on the same day of the week at the same time to see if she's working and approaching her yourself.

and pardon me for thinking out loud….. Maybe you could take the opportunity to write a letter about disability in the Mayan exhibit. Connect it with the disability issues in that lecture about ancient Egypt (am I misremembering - that was you, wasn't it?) and suggest that they do an exhibit on disability in different ancient cultures, including educating the staff on the topic so they are comfortable discussing it using accepted modern terminology. You can do that without mentioning that particular staff at all and maybe it'll nudge them into doing a really interesting exhibit.

Colleen said...

Dear Dave:

I agree that one should pick one's battles. In this case I think it is battle worthy because this woman has a position in which she has an influence on the public. I do agree with other responders that you do not want to address this in a way that gets the woman in trouble with her superiors - you want to have a positive impact on her so she will then pass on the positve to the public. I think you would be the best person to decide the most tactful way to do that.

I really like the suggestion of an exhibit on people with disabilities in ancient cultures - that would be fascinating!

Good luck with this - I hope you keep us posted.

lillytigre said...

Hey Happy Food for thought maybe: If you will indulge me for a minute ....why crippled is unacceptable when describing a person. For me it is simple this many dictionary definitions use the words beggar or imperfect to define the word cripple. I've also seen helpless used. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth because when I was teased as a kid it was "hey look at the cripple" EWWW I am so much more then that... I would hope that even though you consider yourself to have a disability there is more then just that ,about you as well :) Somehow I think language has been taken and used in a negative way when it wasn't really intended to do so and now some definitions have also taken on the negative meaning.

Sorry everybody but that's me picking a battle ;-) Which by way is something I do every single day. I think that battles we choose on a daily basis say something about what is truly important to us.

Louise said...

I really get that you didn't feel like yet another battle right then. But if she didn't know it was offensive, she didn't know. My mother, who lived with polio from infancy until she died 5 years ago, always referred to herself as 'a cripple'. She thought that 'disabled' was too politically correct and she didn't like to use it. She was anything but disabled (or crippled) by her disabilities, she worked full time when she had young children, an active social life. etc. This was the word that worked for her.

Andrew said...

I agree with Rachel and Andrea...approach this woman again and kindly explain what is offensive about the term. You could perhaps later write a letter to the museum and mention this problem, without naming names.

Larry Hehn said...

This doesn't sound to me like something that would warrant a letter. I think ideally a short, polite, on-the-spot conversation would have been the best.

I feel for the lady, since I too am confused about what terms are acceptable these days and what aren't. It didn't appear to me that her use of the word "cripple" was in any way meant to be derogatory. I am more likely to question the use of the word "dwarf" since I thought that it went out several years ago and was replaced by "little person".

I get the impression that the lady was simply ignorant about what terms to use, and could have benefitted from (and would likely have been receptive to) some gentle instruction.

In my opinion, even a well-written letter about it would not have as positive effect as a one-on-one conversation. I'd be much more receptive to a heartfelt conversation with you, Dave, than a reprimand received through my employer because of a letter of complaint.

I appreciate you asking this question. Please forgive me for my own ignorance about disabilities and the appropriate terms to use in conversation. I do want to learn! I hope you get a chance to see that lady at the museum again, and chat with her. I get the feeling that she'd appreciate the conversation too.

wheeliecrone said...

If you are feeling particularly energetic one day, sometime early in 2012, you might write a letter to the museum's executives. You might say that you had noticed a certain amount of unease amongst their staff when interacting with persons with disability and that you had heard some inappropriate language, and offer the names of some persons and firms who are known to you, who would be able to conduct Disability Awareness Training for their staff.
Just a suggestion.

Anonymous said...

the only thing I could add to what everyone else said is that when you have time and the energy with all the knowledge you have you could "suggest" some disability history to the museum - perhaps on the history of words.


Nan said...

I think you should offer them the opportunity to hire you to train their "spokespeople" to be aware of . . . well, perhaps inclusive language and teaching opportunities. I think part of it is not just "personal" i.e., that attendant's personal responsibility to know about the exhibit and/or what language to use, but "professional." And as a professional, I think you should be paid to educate. So there!

Let's face it this is a major museum! Its also the museum that showed work by Judith Snow I believe. (and she has some good and interesting stories about that!!!)

But I can't help but think you wouldn't be the only one pointing this out? Maybe you could gently encourage one other reader who lives in Toronto who goes the the ROM to ask the same question and see what they get?

Anonymous said...

Dave, why not email the ROM with a link to this post, and encourage a reading of the full range of your readers'comments...?

Ample perspective to inform their feedback to every member of staff - guaranteed to avoid any further possibility of offence.

Quite a timely gift for the New Year of the museum's patrons - !

Thanks for sharing your experiences, and for broadening the polemic around disability issues. Always of interest, always a pleasure to read, your generous blogs.

Rachel in Idaho said...

Larry, there is constant argument about the terms. Dwarf is generally okay. Little person is okay, though I personally don't like it much. The only one offensive on the surface, really, is midget.

Molly said...

I try to just correct them in my own speech. so my students would say "autistic children" and I would say "yes, children with autism"

most of the time they'd change their language too.

Dave Hingsburger said...

As an update, I did email this post to the ROM. Thanks for the discussion!

EK said...

Molly: this might be tangential, but I would point out that many autistic people dislike person-first language, and prefer to be called or referred to as just that - autistic (I happen to be one of those people), I might suggest reading this essay:

Ettina said...

I don't think you should complain about what word she used. One of my biggest criticisms of you, Dave, and of many disability activists (and activists in other movements), is that you place too much stock in the language used. What word someone used is *not* what matters, it's the context. When my trucker cousin talks about how he was led through Montreal by a 'Paki' who really knew the city well, he's not being racist just because he used the wrong word, because his entire manner of describing the guy showed that he had just as much respect for 'Pakis' as for anyone else.

I'd complain about the lack of coverage about the dwarfs, but make no mention of the word she used. It's really not a big deal. Activists already have a bad reputation for fussing over semantics, and it's somewhat well-deserved. Remember that any word for disability can be offensive if used the wrong way. It's not that using disablist language leads to disablist attitudes, it's that disablist attitudes cause neutral descriptors to become disablist.