Saturday, October 22, 2011

Words and Intentions

Last week I began a personal crusade. I want to write about it but this first:

When someone goes on a diet and tells me so, I don't think that they are telling me to go on a diet.

When someone starts running every day for fitness, I don't think that they are telling me to do the same.

When someone tells me that they are working to clean up their language, I sure as hell don't think they are telling me to stop cursing.

Therefore, it's possible for someone do try to do something to improve themselves, or more often to prove to themselves that they can - without placing pressure on others to do the same. This is just me. This is just my goal.

Caution over.

Recently I became aware of the number of times I use 'disability as a negative metaphor' and 'ability as a positive metaphor':

He was deaf to my complaints.

They were blind to the effect their actions had on others.

I need people to sometimes take the time to walk me though an idea.

I see what you are saying.

Now, I am very much on the bandwagon of ending the 'R' word. The words above are not used in the same way, they don't target with the purpose of hurt. In fact when someone says to me, as happened recently, "Dave will you walk us through this?' I didn't raise a fuss because the speaker had no unkindness in mind. It's pretty hard not to use the 'R' word without unkindness in mind. Even so, it's beginning to bother me that I use these words. I'm a disabled person, these words reflect on others in my community. Further, I give lectures to thousands of people a year.

Question: Isn't it odd for a person with a disability who espouses a position of 'disability pride' to be on a podium using 'metaphors that present disability as a negative?'

Answer: Um, yes.

So I decided to take these words out of my language. I'm lucky because, I have a vocabulary that allows me to do so. I don't need them. I began to see them as a lazy way to describe a situation. It only takes a moment's thought to rephrase.

My project began here on this blog a couple months ago. My awareness was first raised when I referred to a situation as 'scitzophrenic' and a huge discussion happened here. I changed the post. Slowly from there I began really reading the comments from readers with varying experiences of disability and of the prejudices that each face. Why should language on a DISABILITY BLOG be careless. Especially since, there are so many other ways of saying the same thing.

It's been a few weeks that my writing was intentional here, it's always been intentional to the message I want to give, but it has become intentional as to how I give the message. I know I've slipped - disability words and negative metaphors are more integrated into language than people with disabilities have ever been into society. Even so, I'm trying.

Last week I began to work at getting them out of my speech. I think they had diminished during my exercise with writing differently. Even so, they were there, in abundance. What I've determined to do is, when I use the word and catch it as it comes out, I stop, apologize, explain what I'm doing, change the expression and move on. It was going well, the confused looks on the faces of others made them all look 'cute' ... which was nice because 'hostile' was an option and I never saw it once.

That same week I was doing a day long training and had to stop at least twice, correct my wording, and continue. The audience went with the flow and no one much said anything to me. But it was an intimate setting and the room had really gelled into a  kind of cool place to be. So, good. First time I had to do it in front of others, and it went well.

Today, in a few hours in fact, I'm doing a keynote speech at the same conference. I know a Keynote on a Saturday! Anyways, I am writing here because I want somewhere to pledge out loud that if I'm going to do it, I'm going to do it. So, if I use 'we can't be blind to consequences'...' I'm going to stop, apologize for the poor choice of words, change them to something like (context matters of course) 'We can't ignore consequences.' It's an easy thing to do, but may trip up the flow of a keynote. But, I am determined to go into next year with speech that reflects my belief that disability isn't a negative experience and that anyone with a disability who hears me speak or reads my writing will know that I've made the attempt. So any readers who are about to hear me speak today, realize I'm talking to you with a sniffer dog watching over how I speak, and if I have to embarrass myself by stopping and changing and expression, so be it. (I hope I have the courage.)

Do I intend to start a trend?

Only in my life.

When you go on a diet, I don't eat less.

So, I'm telling you this because I want to be able to come back here, to my blog community, every now and then and talk about what this is like. To have 'disability proud' language and to live a 'disability proud' life. That is the next step in my evolution as a writer / speaker.

Hold me accountable when I err.

I'll thank you.


This was up and published when I read it to Joe as part of the editing process. In that edit I found three uses of 'ability as a positive metaphor' in the text. They are gone now. The 'disability as a negative' are easier to spot, but I'll get good at both with time. If you see others here, read as critically as you can, I want to learn this, I believe it's possible, let me know and I will change it if we both agree.


Education: Exploring Online Learning said...

You've just made me so much more aware.

Alison Cummins said...

Dave, I'm a teeny bit confused. Don't you ever "go for a walk"? The folks I know who use wheelchairs to get around certainly do.

Or is that the point, that if you aren't literally walking on your legs, that you should have linguistic options that don't presuppose that you do?

Tamara said...

I have thought about this before, and I thought it would be very difficult. But, I agree that it's a lazy way to express ourselves. Good luck - I'm glad you shared what you've been doing here. I really haven't noticed, so I'm hoping that now that I'm aware, I will see how your rephrases work.

And I just have to add that this is so true: "disability words and negative metaphors are more integrated into language than people with disabilities have ever been into society."

Kind of laughing though. When I see all the "free speech indignation" over the R-Word campaign, I can only imagine what some would say about this. I understand it's only a personal crusade, but I can just imagine the reactions.

Flemisa said...

I have stopped myself several times this week wondering at my choice of words so this really hit home. Hopefully I will learn this "new" language along with you.

And about making an input -- your blog with the video I passed along to 6 other people and hadn't commented then. Just to show what influence you can have.

Anonymous said...

I am inspired by your personal crusade! I believe tgat changing our language DOES change the way we think and I am, even after being thoroughly uninvited, joining you in this effort. I'm not going to comment on it to others. I will just change my own awareness and the language to reflect that.
Thanks Dave!

Nan said...

Commendations for your goal!!! Certainly made me think, and also think about the fine line between purely descriptive metaphores and metaphores that present disability as negative. Don't want to say that the use of the verb "to walk" is always discriminatory? Why not walk me through it (take me through it doesn't have quite the same flavour as the step-by-step suggestion given by "walk me through it" and I know that, for my daughter at least, step-by-step descriptions are also important.) Hmmm. What about jump on the bandwagon? talk it through, walk the talk, love is blind (and that's a good thing, isn't it?) Wow. Sure makes you think about language and that there are no easy ways of talking (living!!!)
Here's another one that we have discussed recently. R#word is so obviously negative and insulting. But what about "gay." ?? This is one we discussed with my daughter. WHile R#word is never okay (she uses the cards that you had talked about on a previous blog Dave!!!). Gay is okay to describe oneself or a friend (who is attracted to people of the same sex), but NOT okay in many HS situations where it is used as an insult/in a negative way (as in that's so gay!).

Guess we need to THINK sometimes about what we are communicating and how we use words. And that is laudable. Thanks Dave!

Tony said...

I'm personally only bothered by the disability=negative stuff. Idiomatic/cultural expressions arising from the more common ability sets doesn't bother me. Ability sets that no one matches up to entirely anyway.

I think there's a pretty big difference between saying "I see what you mean" and "I don't deserve to be treated like a leper." (of course many people have the strange idea that no one has leprosy anymore)

CapriUni said...

Another word that bothers me (and, like the R# word, is usually only used as an insult) is "Lame."

I've made two decisions: 1) to take "lame" as an insult out of my language, and 2) deliberately use "lame" (or 'crippled') as a self-descriptive in a matter-of-fact and proud way.

My substitute word for "lame-as-insult," by the way, is "flat."

Krista said...

I've only recently found your blog, and I'm excited every time I visit. I've wanted to comment on EVERY entry I've ready; but this one hit me more than others. As a person with a debilitating syndrome with a young Daughter who is effected differently (compounded with CP), I've often caught myself in such the same predicament of using misguided metaphors. It's nice to know I'm not the only one, and I wish you good luck in your upcoming speeches. :)

Kristine said...

I definitely see your point about "disability negative" language, and ever since the discussions on your blog, I've started making some efforts to avoid such expressions. I don't think I'm at your level of commitment yet, but I'm on the same playground.

But (for the sake of discussion, not argument :), count me in the boat with people who don't understand the problem with "ability positive" language. I've used a wheelchair my entire life, but I've never felt like that stopped me from "going for a walk," or "standing around and waiting," or "running" to get somewhere. I would happily "walk you through it," or "stand by you," or whatever you need me to do. :) It actually bothers me when people make an obvious effort to avoid those phrases around me. It's really awkward when people say, "Do you want to walk with... er, uh... roll... with me?" I'm ok with my disability making me different, but those moments make me feel "other." My own definitions of walk/stand/etc have much more to do with the social context of the movement, than the physical mechanics of the movement.

Unless I start hearing that the blind or deaf communities find it offensive, I can't imagine ever hesitating to ask a blind or deaf person to "see/hear/look/listen to what I'm saying." I feel like I'm just as likely to tell a deaf person "thanks for listening" as anyone else. We all know that having a friend who's a "good listener" has nothing to do with their hearing abilities, and much to do with their compassion.

I don't mind learning that I'm wrong. :) But for now, that's where I stand. (I swear that came out naturally, not to prove a point! But I'm going to leave it. :)

Dave Hingsburger said...

Kristine, Alison and others, just to be clear, this is just what I'm going to do because I want to do it. I want to see if my language abilities give me enough options to avoid phrases that use ability or disability. I, long ago, stopped saying that 'I'm going for a walk,' because I'm not. I say I'm going out, or going to or Joe walked with me as we went ... I don't walk and don't have a need to present myself that way. But I don't raise ahy issues with people who use that language with me. As I said, this is a personal quest, something that I want to challenge myself to do as a writer and as a speaker. Today I managed the whole lecture without use of any disability metaphors and it was surprisingly easy to do so. I'm, again, not trying to suggest anyone else do this. I am just doing a personal experiment with my own language and my own way of expressing it.

ivanova said...

Hmm, this is interesting to me. A blind friend once told me that she hated when people edited themselves around her (not saying phrases like "see what I mean," or using the word "see.") She said she didn't like being treated like a baby and she used the same words as everyone else and knows what "see" means. I try to stop myself from saying phrases that I know have offensive origins that we've mostly forgotten. But I am not sure what to think about phrases that have a strong idiomatic meaning, like "take a walk" that in my mind does not involve being ambulatory. I have recently been trying to stop making so many snap judgments about gender and stop treating gender as binary, and it surprised me how often I am doing this. So I am curious to hear more about how your personal crusade goes.

Allison said...

As a linguist, one of the things I've studied is metaphor, so I really enjoyed your post as it mulled over the use of 'disability is negative' and 'ability is positive.' (Many wonderful examples and a lot to pay attention to in everyday conversation...)

I'm curious, however... you've included "walk" in your metaphor, but at the almost end of your post, you write, "That is the next step in my evolution as a writer / speaker." (emphasis added) Would "step" not be placed int he same metaphor as it refers to the action of putting one foot in front of another and a "step-by-step" process referring to the action of "walking through" said process? I'm not saying that my analysis of the metaphor is right, I'm just curious as to what degree your metaphor goes in this respect.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Hmmm, 'step' ... to me a step is a synonym for a stair. I imagined a twelve step programing as rising from level to level, not going a pace forward. So, no, it didn't have the same meaning for me as walk. And 'again' I'm not opposed to anyone else using those kinds of words, I don't think they are inherently even slightly offensive to me - I just want to try to rid the use of that kind of language. I'm keeping 'step' for now because of how it's defined but I will think long and hard about it. ... And here's something else, I don't like it when people fumble and edit their speach around me either. I want to make it so that this speech is natural and that it occurs naturally in my writing. If someone notices I've done it, I've done it badly. I'm loving the conversation. Thanks!

Allison said...

Ah. That was the clarification I was looking for: step=stair, not step=walk. Thanks!

Nan said...

This is such a fascinating conversation. But first ... kudos Dave on your talk! (and managing to avoid disability as negative phrases)!!!

Beth said...

Hm. I guess I think it might be a bit much, not that my opinion should matter here. Sort of reminds me of some friends I had as a teen that heard or decided that "secular" media was bad, so they destroyed all the music (and some of them, books too) that weren't explicitly Christian. I simply didn't understand their desire to go so far. But, hey, whatever floats your boat -- not to disparage those without boats or those with boats of insufficient buoyancy. ;-)

liZa said...

I'm new to this blog, I'm actually new to the whole blogging experience. I had a bad experience on another disability blog so am a bit shy of leaving comments now, but I like this idea. I don't see it like Beth does, I don't see it like book burning at all. I've been a wheelchair user all my life and I've never thought how my language might affect how I see the world and how I allow the world to see me. Maybe if I was more careful to express what I did, in words that reflect my existance, maybe it would give a bit more legitimacy and authenticity to how I present myself. I can't "pass" for non-disabled in the real world, why would I want to "pass" in my conversational world. I was challenged by this.

Tony said...

"But (for the sake of discussion, not argument :), count me in the boat with people who don't understand the problem with "ability positive" language."

You know, I'm thinking about this more and I have to go further- I'm not sure it really IS ability positive. Saying "stop being so blind," all the jokes that are supposedly funny because someone/something is compared to a developmentally disabled person, etc... Clearly negative.

"I'm going for a walk." How is that "disability as positive"? Going for a walk is neutral. The action itself is not a good or bad thing innately. The expression is not stating that walking is a better way of getting around than any other way. It's just an idiomatic expression like saying "It's gone to the dogs." That statement has nothing to do with specieism or indeed even with dogs.

So I have to say I disagree with the entire line of thinking about so called "ability positive" statements. Although of course I don't think Dave Hinsgburger is harming anyone in this.

PS If we're going to go all the way with this, couldn't we say that even equating going higher on stairs/steps with progress is an ability statement? I think worrying about this personally and taking it seriously would gut my language, since I can have a hard enough time expressing myself already.

Beth said...

liZa, maybe my example was bad. The key part was "I simply didn't understand their desire to go so far." People who aim to diet by eliminating an entire food group or type of nutrient/calorie, I don't understand that, either. It's that I don't understand eliminating an entire category because you know some things in that category are bad (while others are unknown).

I understand we disagree, but I don't see Dave's goal as book-burning. I want that made absolutely clear. Just a note, though, there's nothing inherently wrong with getting rid of your own books, even by burning--they're yours to do with as you wish.

I'm unsure how my vocabulary could "legitimize" however I am. I genuinely can't imagine how words could make how I present myself less legitimate. I am as I am, whatever words I use. But I suspect I'm misunderstanding.

Fwiw, I have physical disabilities (including mobility problems) and various cognitive disabilities. Many of mine, I don't know if there are words for. I commonly describe many of my disabilities through metaphor; I guess I don't see a problem with the opposite (disability as metaphor) so long as it isn't insulting or furthering erroneous ideas. So I don't understand taking away all of it. But I'm well aware that there are people who think differently than I do and that, in general, that's ok.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Tony, saying 'I'm going for a walk, when you walk, is entirely neutral. You walk, you use the word walk. I don't walk, I don't use the word walk. (I actually walk a little, very little, so using the word walk, when I'm describing myself walking is fine - in my new linguistic world.) I agree with liZa, saying 'I'm going for a walk' when I'm going out in my chair, isn't accurate, and doesn't seem to reflect my experience ... let me tell you from having done both, navigating the world in a wheelchair is very different than getting about on feet. As to 'steps and stairs' they exist, many people with disabilities use steps and stairs, I find nothing wrong with those either.

Maybe, however, many of you are right. I need to think through this more. I'm clear on the 'disability as negative part', I'm clear on ability as positive 'walk me through this' ... or 'the agency has vision' ... but the use of words like 'walk' and 'see' maybe not so much. Anyways, my goal will define itself as I go on.

Beth, I am a vegetarian so I've already left out a whole food group! In my mind, this isn't quite the same thing. It's more like making the determination to call an 'orange' an 'orange' not an 'apple' (saying 'going out' instead of 'going for a walk'). And avoiding words that cast disability as a negative experience, or ability as a positve one. I think when people say 'That's mighty white of you' when someone does something nice is horribly racist. So, why isn't 'It's the blind leading the blind' considered the same thing. I don't need to say either - I just need to be creative in how I choose to express myself.

liZa, first, can I say that I love how you've constructed your name and wonder if there is a story behind it. Second, I never thought of your points regarding legitimacy and authenticity, thanks.

And again, this is something I'm trying and only telling you about. I am absolutely not suggesting that anyone else should try. Really. I wanted to mention it here because

Dave Hingsburger said...

I should have continued on in my last comment and said THANK YOU ALL FOR THIS DISCUSSION it's really helping me conceptualize and further firm up what I'm doing and what I'm aiming for. I have always been impressed how the discussions and disagreements here at RAIMH are so incredibly civil. I think a world wherein disagreement leads to discussion rather than violence is a terrific goal.

Tony said...

Well, I still don't see how saying "going for a walk" is implying that anything is POSITIVE. It's also not as simple as "You walk, you use the word walk. I don't walk, I don't use the word walk." Since as some people have pointed out, many wheelchair users do "go for a walk" and do feel like it describes what they're doing. You feel like it's not accurate, so you don't use it (this isn't really much of a decision- why use words that don't communicate what you mean?). But being innaccurate isn't the same as having a value jugement.

I could also say "As to 'walking' the action exists, many people with disabilities walk, I find nothing wrong with that." (and I think here you could say "Okay, but it's MY word choice." Which it is, but most of your reasoning isn't dependent on you personally and if you're right it would mean other people should do the same thing, even if you wouldn't tell them to. Whereas what you feel best describes your experiences is a very personal thing.)

I am kind of starting to get what you mean by ability as positive now, but I also still feel like that's an issue of negativity. Including the "That's mighty White of you"- how many would actually get upset by someone saying that they felt like most white people are nice? That problem with the statement in quotes is that it implies that other people AREN'T nice and that being nice has something intrinsically to do with Whiteness, which IS racist. It's when the worthwhileness isn't extended to other people that it becomes prejudice.

I'll try to give other people a chance to comment though, I've done it a lot here.

CapriUni said...

I know this is my second reply here, and I don't want to be a thread hog, so rest assured it will be my last.

However, as a lover of language and words, I applaud any attempt to think and speak with care and attention, whatever you finally say.

Beth said...

To be (too?) particular, "the blind leading the blind" isn't considered the same because it's a from the Bible and, as such, has been integrated into language for well over a thousand years. Also, the phrase was used metaphorically even in the Bible.

My boyfriend is blind. We've talked about blindness as metaphor. He said he knew what that phrase meant, but it always struck him as funny because he's been led by people with less sight than him. He has no problem at all with the phrasing "intentionally blind" because the metaphor implies someone doing less than they can. Another is "deaf to..." as in "deaf to my cries". In that case, it isn't that not hearing is bad, it's that hearing and pretending you don't is bad. I think most everyone, disability or no, would agree that not doing one's best, not doing whatever one can do, is a bad thing.

I also remember talking with boyfriend about a post on another blog in which the blogger (unlike you, Dave,) was saying everyone should eliminate [list of words and phrases] from their vocabulary because those words and phrases hurt "people who have blindness". The author wasn't blind, wasn't close with anyone who was blind, and didn't ask anyone who was blind but considered it obvious that such phrases as "see you later" hurt people who have no sight. It's awkward when someone is obviously avoiding certain common words around you, such as "see" or "walk"; and it's uncomfortable to know they're doing so to protect you when you don't need protection. Would using words like "hue" and "shade" rather than "color", renaming the lack of light and the shade that absorbs all color, and referring to the common result of skin with little pigment when exposed to UV rays as "evidence of an increase in melanogenesis" (rather than a tan) be racist even if it was all in the pursuit of eliminating racism? I think it would be if the change in verbiage was so as not to upset people of color. Sometimes trying not to do something means doing it. Who succeeds when they focus on not thinking of a pink elephant?

Stephanie said...

I started a similar endeavor awhile back, and I'm still working on it. Despite having an extensive vocabulary and despite having developed a skill to create unusual metaphors, I find the deeper I look to excise disability as a negative metaphor from my own usage, the more subtle ones I find that I wouldn't have otherwise thought of.

It's scary how deeply ingrained the concept of disability as a negative is even for those of us who willfully choose not to believe it.

Anonymous said...

Saying that something comes from the Bible therefore isn't subject to being called disability negative is simply wrongheaded. The bible is full of, and responsible for, much disability prejudice. I don't intend on following all that is suggested in this post but I think a call to think about how we as disabled. People express ourselves is timely.

Anonymous said...

I have friends who are blind and they don't care if phrasse such as "see you later" are used.

However, it may not be a good idea to use the word "crazy" to mean fun or wild.

Anonymous said...

I am having so much fun with this! I love love love how changing the words I use has so much power to change my thinking! It isn't that there is necessarily anything wrong with the words I've changed but changing them forces me to be creative, mindful, and just aware. Its so empowering to be shifted attitudinally!

Anonymous said...

Wait! I want to rethink that! It's empowering to SHIFT MYSELF attitudinally!

Liz said...

wow. This is going to be a struggle - especially ability as a positive metaphor. You say "I began to see them as a lazy way to describe a situation." == but wouldn't it be that you began to understand them as . . . ? And about that sniffer dog "watching" over you? Perhaps it will be "monitoring" you, or "paying attention to" you?

I recently participated in a discussion of styles of learning (visual, aural, and kinesthetic in particular). Interestingly, one way to suss out a person's learning style is to listen to their language:

"I feel ya"
"I hear you," and
"I see"
are all ways of saying "I understand. Maybe it's not ability as positive metaphor so much as it is a reflection of each person's own way of experiencing and understanding the world? If you are sighted and "see" solutions, how different is that, really, from someone who might know that something just "feels right?"

Dave Hingsburger said...

Liz, I agree, after all this discussion, I'm not so sure if 'ability as positive' is really what I thought it was at first. I'm now pretty certain about my goal in eliminating disability negative stuff but the casual use of words like 'see' and 'hear' I'm going to leave alone for now. They don't seem to have the kind of intentionality that I am aiming for here in my quest. Thanks for your comment.