Its happening again. There is a debate going on about whether we should use the word disability. There are still those Ableist that hate the word disability. “It says they are less able.” Say those able-bods that struggle with the word. What they are really saying is – “I’d hate to be like that ….Let’s try make them like us as much as possible.”
And so they begin the quest to find a nicer way to tell people they are disabled. Differently abled. People of varying abilities. Sight challenged, height challenged. hearing challenged etc. People of varying needs. It goes on and on.
I have written about this often. I am going to keep this short and sweet. I am going to be blunt and tell people that struggle with the word disability to get over it and just say it …And here is why.
As a lad I lost my hearing around the ages of 8 and 10. My earliest memory is attending an appointment with an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist with my dad. The specialist recommended hearing aids. I remember my parents struggling with this, as many parents do. Accepting your child has a “deficit” is a difficult thing.
I remember my mum stating vehemently that I didn’t need them. My parents might have been a bit in denial – Not wanting to accept the inevitable. It is a difficult thing for a parent. They accepted it later but at the start they struggled. Of course, as an impressionable kid, the message that I processed was that deaf was a bad, bad thing.
When I attended doctor appointments in those days, I was really not there. I could hear enough in those early times. You listen to the doctor say directly to your parents, as if you are not in the room – “If we get him aided quickly he can live a normal life …” The message – Deaf isn’t normal – hearing is – Get fixed. Being ignored by the doctor fosters a great sense of powerlessness
Next comes a kind of acceptance from your parents that hearing aids are needed. This is where it gets interesting. The professionals will say things like – “The aids are so small no one will ever know.” “They are the same colour as your skin people cant see them” You can grow your hair long, people wont know you have them” The message? Deafness must be hidden, no-one must know!
What does this do to ones mentality? Well for a start it destroys your self esteem. “He’s only hard of hearing, he does very well really” “He speaks so well, you wouldn’t know he was deaf.” “Such a strapping lad, you’d never know he had some kind of disability like deafness.”
All these are well meaning comments, but what they tell you is that being deaf is not a good thing. Being seen like everyone else is. Avoidance of the word, avoidance of the fact – it all serves to reinforce a point of view that being deaf is bad, deny it, hide it and don’t talk about it at any cost.
This destroys you as a young person. Instead of just seeing deafness as a completely normal human condition and treating it as such, the message is – The less you look deaf, the better you are.
And so I spent all my adolescent years practically denying the fact I was deaf. Fed these messages by hearing society that I should hide my deafness, particularly by professionals, that’s what I tried to do.
I started to deliberately lose hearing aids. I would refuse to wear them. I started pretending that I could understand when I could not. Of the latter, kids knew this and they would always try to trip me up, “Are you a poof?” they would ask, hoping to trip me up. (No offence to the LGBTIQA community, I wouldn’t care if I was.) – I had a whole host of little tricks designed to convince myself that I wasn’t deaf.
But I was deaf. And I knew people knew and that burned. So I stopped going to school. If I was at school I sat in a corner by myself. Believe it or not, I was even caned for consistently forgetting my hearing aids and lying about it. That really reinforced a view in myself that deaf was bad and I hated being deaf.
It took a very long time, well into my twenties, before I really was Ok in my deaf skin. But it didn’t need to be that way. Largely I blame those professionals, well meaning as they were, for their negative attitude towards deafness and the language that they used. It was and is very damaging.
Still they are doing it. Looking for a better way to say disability. Trying to come up with a term that softens the blow. It doesn’t, it simply reinforces the fact that disability is seen as a negative thing. If people talk about it negatively constantly and refuse to say the word disability, the consequence on the young person with a disability is negative feelings about disability and themselves. This I know.
I know wheelchair users who told me me that as children they suffered great pain at efforts to make them walk upright. The paradox is that the easiest and most sensible thing was to become a wheelchair user. The painful therapy, the painful surgery and the weird looks they got from people as they struggled to walk – It dug deep into their soul.
Later, when they decide being a wheelchair user is the best and most sensible thing, they felt a great sense of failure and even feelings of having let people down, particularly their parents. Thats what this be “be normal” attitude does – a hell of a lot of damage.
To those professionals and those non-disabled who are struggling with the word disability I advise – Just say it, move on, get over it and change your attitude- Disability isn’t a dirty word.