Monday, October 03, 2011

Loathing Words!!


Piles and piles of words.

So many of the things I've been reading recently, about disability, have infuriated me. There are words that appear over and over again. Words that appear benign. Words that appear to be about something BIG, about something GRAND, about something IMPORTANT. Words that assume what I want, as a person with a disability, what we want as people with disabilities. Words crafted by others, that pretend to be about us, about our needs, but are only, really, about the sense they get about being gifted in the presence of what they see to be our deficits. Its is only really a fool that could say, "There but for the grace of God go I," and not understand what it says and what it means. There are words that feel good in the mouth of the privileged but burn in the ears of the dispossessed.

Words like: Empower.

I hate this word. I see it all the time. I've written about it before and I will do again, but for now let me rant. Who the hell wants, ever, to be empowered by another? Who the hell wants to be seen as so weak and so passive that they wait for the benevolent help of one's 'betters' for the 'gift' of power? We can only, of course, empower ourselves. We can only, of course, embrace the power we've always had and begin to use it. We can only, of course, raise ourselves. No one can do these things for us. No one can do these things for another. The word 'empower' - where it bothers me most, is when I see it used by those within systems. Systems that have routinely disempowered, routinely disengaged, routinely disregarded those with disabilities. Those they SAY they SERVE. It's a word used without irony, which is, itself, ironic. They first rob of power and then give tiny pieces of it back and call it 'empowerment'. It's like a thief stealing from someone a dollar and then giving a quarter back in an effort to 're-enrich' the victim. Right.


I call Bullshit.

Words like: Tolerance

I do not wish to be tolerated. I do not wish to be the 'one' tolerated by the 'many'. I do not wish anyone making the supreme effort to tolerate the mere fact of my presence. I do not wish to be the fart in the elevator that everyone pretends is not there. Existing with the understanding and tolerance of another, existing with the gift of someone's making an exception, someone's making an effort ... as if my existence here, in this place, is not a right but a privilege granted by another. Those who tolerate get to tut tut the tolerated. Those who tolerate get to roll their eyes and glance conspiratorially at the other tolerators at the antics of the tolerated. Those who tolerate get to determine what is acceptable and what is 'just to much my dear'.


I call Bullshit.

Words like: Kindness

Let me dissuade you of an idea. I do not want your kindness because I do not wish your pity. And let's be honest, kindness most often grows as a weed around the wellspring of pity. Grabbing a door for a pregnant woman who is struggling with parcels to get in is not KINDNESS, for God's sake, it's CIVILITY. We have become a society who wants kindness credited to their humanity card for simple acts of civility. While I do not wish kindness, certainly not more or less kindness than offered to any other, I do wish for civility. I do wish for behaviour that considers me as a person and my needs in the moment. Just as I wish to consider the needs of you as a person and your needs in the moment. Civility is not kindness. Civility is increasingly rare but that does not make it's occurrence exceptional or it's practitioner kind.


I call Bullshit.

Words like: Blindness

Saying to someone with a disability that 'I just can't see disability' or 'when I see you I don't see your disability' or 'I only see abilities', and this is the worst of course, 'I'm just blind to disability.' Oh, freaking, please. PLEASE. No one is 'blind' to my disability and furthermore I DON'T WANT YOU TO BE BECAUSE I'M NOT ASHAMED OF IT. I don't see how you think I should be flattered or, God Forbid, think you are magnificent, because you don't see what is plainly there. I am disabled. Get that. I am freaking disabled. I am in a freaking, fracking, wheelchair. See it? It's the thing under my fat ass!! Don't try to get me to 'play pretend' that my disability doesn't exist to you or to the world. Don't get me to give in to your desire to play 'dress up reality' and feel that you have RAISED ME OUT OF DISABILITY AND INTO EQUALITY. No, don't. Just don't. I am disabled. I don't like the idea of being verbally euthanized by words like 'challenged' or 'special' or 'exceptional'. I don't like being taken out of language and I don't like being taken out of my wheelchair and into fantasy-land. I live here, in reality, and I FREAKING LIKE IT HERE. I do not wish to move into your world where you pretend I don't have a disability and I pretend that you are a saint.


I call, double Bullshit.

Hey, here's a word I'd like to hear a little more often: Respect.

Why don't we try that for a little while? Why don't we empower ourselves though kindness and tolerance towards a disability blindness so that we can ... oh, sorry the word respect doesn't fit in that sentence. Respect Difference. Respect Diversity. Respect Disability. Respect engenders respect. None of the other words have that capacity. None of the other words have within it a deep need for mutual change. None of the other words call us out into real interaction and real comradeship in the real world. Respect knocks at the door of social change. I'm guessing that's why kindness, and tolerance, and 'blindness' and empowerment never answer.


I love some.

I fear others.

I loathe these.


Kristin said...

I can understand not wanting to have this post run on Sunday. As a member of the Adoption, Loss, and Infertility community, I have learned exactly how sharply seemingly well intentioned words or comments can cut. Saying "You just don't deserve to have that happen" implies that someone else does deserve the losses or constant struggle to have a baby. While it is very different, it gives me a little bit of understanding as to just how hurtful these seemingly nice, helpful, uplifting words can be to someone who is disabled.

I hope everyone who reads this and your post about the lady in the hallway take them as an important reminder to think and really understand the meaning behind the words and the tone of voice they use.

Baba Yaga said...

Wow. Wonderfully said.

Anonymous said...

It is obvious when you say it like that Dave, wish I had your insight. We all get caught up in being politically correct and try to "improve" our language. I think its great that you remind us to treat everyone the same without guilt or pretence. True equality is quite a way off in some circles but I feel we do get closer all the time when you remind us its ok to treat everyone the same.

Education: Exploring Online Learning said...

Love this post. Thank you.

Sher said...


ivanova said...

Thanks for this post!

Andrew said...

Absolutely fantastic post, Dave...can I take this and airdrop a million copies in pamphlet form over my area?

Mathew D. said...


You always have a wonderful way to say exactly what I think and feel about these things. Thank you for everything you say and do.

Xara said...

I have never commented before and I just wanted to say Thankyou for that piece you kinda captured exactly as I was feeling and others dont get it when they think they have done me a favour when they have just insulted me

Anonymous said...

Thank you thank you thank you for this post.
It makes me soooo mad when people tell me, 'but I don't think of you as different'.
It hurts so much that they deny my experience and pass that denial to me as a gift. Yuk.

Anonymous said...


I like this post and agree with you about most of the words- except....empower! While I agree with you, that no-one can empower you; you have to do it for yourself and that often those who are trying to empower are those who have taken the power away in the first place. I do also feel that there genuinely are some people who can help facilitate others to come to realise their own power (i.e self empowerment) and who do so without having taken any power away.

Have there ever been times when someone has helped you realised some potential you had, but you hadn't noticed? Or pointed out a talent you have, but to you was just something you thought everyone could do - this to me is empowerment! Someone on your side, wanting the best for you - and helping you to bring out the best in you... helping you harness your own power.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Anon, I stick with my disagreement about 'empower' ... here's the definition:

em·pow·er   /ɛmˈpaʊər/ Show Spelled[em-pou-er] Show IPA
verb (used with object)
1. to give power or authority to; authorize, especially by legal or official means: I empowered my agent to make the deal for me. The local ordinance empowers the board of health to close unsanitary restaurants.
2. to enable or permit: Wealth empowered him to live a comfortable life.

And yes there are people who helped me discover within me, things I didn't know were there. People who, through my interactions with them and their support of me, led me to try things that frightened me. But, they didn't empower me, they led me to a place where I empowered myself. Their gift to me was support and faith not power.

But disagreement is good. I don't expect all to agree, in fact, I love a good debate. I appreciate your point and see that you appreciate mine, that's the beginning of good discussion.

Tamara said...

?@$#&*&* I had a different take on empowerment too. It's all over the website of our new disability co-op and I had a totally different perspective on it. . I'm tired and now I have to go read through the whole thing and think. Maybe tomorrow.

Thanks so much, Dave. Sometimes you really do make my brain hurt.

Kristine said...

"Loathe" was one of the vocab words I taught my ESL kids today. :) I'm such a wordy person; this is my kind of post!

I use "empower" within my world as a teacher, but I think I use it appropriately. I generally use it when my students get to take on leadership roles. I think it's empowering for my older students, when they get to assist younger students. I think it's empowering for them to teach me/others about their native languages and cultures. Really, I think that all sorts of opportunities that allow them to express themselves, and to see how their voices DO matter, are empowering.

You could make an argument for how society and various systems (the school systems?) have disenfranchised my students, as members of racial/ethnic/language minority groups, so it's not my place to "give" them power. But I don't see myself as "giving" them power, and I regularly argue the "systems" that push them down. I feel like my job is to help them recognize and access the power and strengths they already have, so they can be successful in spite of the system.

What say you? Appropriate uses of the word?

I can definitely see the criticism of the word in many disability services though. Services are so often granted ONLY if you follow the given bureaucracy's long list of restrictions, that you would never expect any other rational person to agree to. Sure, they'll help you get out of bed in the morning, but only if you promise not to make to much money, or stay up too late, or have a pet, or get married, or move out of state, or... There's nothing empowering about such laundry lists of restrictions.

Corina Becker said...

This. is. Awesome.

I have no other words, except thank you.

And I want to ask whether I could reblog this, with links and credit of course, to the Autistics Speaking Day blog that I run. A couple of participants empowered themselves last year, and I want to encourage that to happen again this year.

Once again, thank you!!!

Dave Hingsburger said...

Corina, as long as I am cited as authour and blog as source, this can be republished anywhere, thanks for wanting to.

Kristine, I knew 'empower' would get the main bulk of responses, and so it has. It's become one of the 'magic words' used about disability, about all those who have been disenfranchised actually. I do believe that situations can be empowering, I can imagine someone saying, "I found it empowering to be able to get up and teach in front of others." I think that same person would react differently if when telling you that she found the experience a powerful one, you said, "Well, I'm glad I empowered you to do that." I guessing it would 'ickyfy' her feelings and feel resentfully towards you. One doesn't want to owe 'power' to another.

J.. said...

Fabulous post. I love it when you say it like it is.

The only word I have any disagreement with is kindness. I call what you described as kindness "being nice" but maybe that is just a difference in word usage. I am raising three children and we talk about kindness a lot. My definition of kindness requires respect and civility and if you interact with others without these elements, you are not being kind, you are being "nice" - and that isn't always a welcome word around this house!

I think of kind behaviour and words as those things that leave the people involved feeling valued and respected. Nice is really just for the one wanting to bestow their supposed goodness on the other.

Corina Becker said...

I also like to leave links so that original authors can see whether I've credited them right.

posted it on No Stereotypes Here, my personal Autism blog, and on the Autistics Speaking Day blog.

You've always been one of my favourite writers, and I'm pleased to be able to share some of your work.

Kristine said...

Yes, on empowerment, I'd agree. I hadn't consciously stopped and thought about it, but I'd agree that "empowerment" needs to come from within, and from a situation. I don't like the idea of one person empowering another; it doesn't feel right. It definitely shows up in the disability world a lot... I'll start paying more attention to how it's used, and what's actually meant by it. To me, it's become one of those meaningless words that businesspeople use, like paradigm and dialogue, without actually saying anything, so I tune it all out.

trainspotter said...

This is a great post! I actually agree with you on the word "empower" (it really is the ugly 'switch-a-roo' you described)- although I've found that, most often, people (disabled or otherwise)function better with support from those that love them. And all of us (disabled or otherwise) have unique things we can share with others.

I have a slightly softer stance on the word "tolerance". I think tolerance, in general, is a positive thing- as it applies to everyone. Every person on the face of this earth becomes annoying sooner or later and it saves a lot of hurt feelings if we keep some of our feelings to ourselves. Of course, my definition of "tolerance" overlaps your definition of "respect" a bit.

Still, I believe that a decent majority of 'non-disabled' people are not trying to be offensive (even when they are) or are feeling superiour to us... they're just ignorant. Unfortunately, they can't read our minds and in an effort to try to be supportive they, often, make us feel like a circus side-show. Seriously, it can be just as awkward for them; and in fairness, it's easy for us to become a bit cynical of those who don't wrestle with the same challenges we do, day after day.

Again, loved the post!

Heather said...

I've been thinking about this blog post for a couple
Of days. I agree wholeheartedly. It's interesting, I think, that the word civility is so rarely used these days. After civility though, can there be kindness in the way of going out of your way to help someone out (that wants help of the kind being offered) beyond simple courtesy? It seems to me that you've nailed civility and pity but I feel reluctant to throw kindness out all together...thoughts?