The term, “politically correct” has taken quite a beating in recent years.
The phrase can mean a lot of things, but these days it seems to be used in an insulting manner – poking fun at people who are trying to be attentive to diversity in our society.
Granted, there are situations where “political correctness” is overdone. (Examples might be describing a janitor as a “sanitation engineer” or a bald person as “folically challenged.”) But for every situation where the wording seems a bit overstrained, there are several where in fact, an individual is consistently defined not by who they are, but by what they have. (Examples here would be calling someone in a wheelchair “a cripple” or labeling someone with mental illness “a psycho.”}
Words matter, and the attached article does an excellent job of providing alternatives to some of the labels traditionaly used to describe people with disabilities. If there is a common theme, it is the recommendation to use “people first” language, where the fact that someone has a disability is not the first thing you learn about her. Because quite often, it ends up being the only thing that is remembered.
Because Franklin D. Roosevelt had contracted polio, he was unable to use his legs. But he was counseled to hide this fact as much as possible, to keep him from appearing “weak.”
In the book, “Roosevelt’s Splendid Deception,” Hugh Gallagher chronicles the extraordinary lengths that Roosevelt took to hide his disability from the world. He believed that this would cause him to be perceived as “weak” in his ability to lead the country through very troubling times. Therefore, he asked the press not to photograph him in a wheelchair. And for the most part, the press complied.
Mr. Roosevelt also did other things to hide the fact that he was a wheelchair user. Although he had virtually no strength from the waist down, he built up his upper body and arm muscles so that he could literally hold himself up from whatever podium he was speaking from, disguising the fact that his legs were effectively useless. And in getting to the podium, he would enlist the help of someone (often his son) to walk with him. Grasping his escort’s arm, he would use that leverage and his upper body strength to propel his legs forward – one at a time – until he could reach the podium.
Was this the best way to handle his disability? It is hard to say – those were different times in a different world. But there are some myths and stereotypes that seem to have stubbornly persisted through the years – chief among them that people with disabilities are not quite “complete” and should not be treated as if they are. Perhaps that is why a doctor who is a wheelchair user recently wrote in the New York Times that her competence has often come into question – both from patients and colleagues. She also suggests that much of this anxiety might be mitigated if there were more physicians with disabilities on the scene.
As those with disabilities know, a common reaction to us is discomfort and anxiety. That can turn into fear, because people are reminded that at any time, they could join the ranks of the disabled population. And although Roosevelt did not mention his disability during his inauguration, surely he spoke from experience when he said, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Note: The photographs below reflect a change in attitude that Roosevelt would have been very happy to see: The first one represents a perpetuation of the “splendid deception,” portraying him as standing tall and proud. Largely because of pressure brought by disability advocates, a new statue was added in the late 90’s. This one shows him as he really was – every bit as proud and presidential.
For more information about these statue changes, see the article below:
This photo is pretty self-explanatory – it’s a begger with his cap in his hand. But a lot of people don’t know that this is where the term, “handicap” came from. This is a big part of the reason why that term is now disfavored.
In addition, when you talk about a Black or Hispanic individual, you don’t usually mention their race first, if at all. This is why people with disabilities advocate for “people first” language. Rather than say, ”That’s a wheelchair-bound person,” why not say, “That’s a person in a wheelchair.” That way, you are identifying their humanity before mentioning their disability.
These may seem like unimportant issues, but it is our common discourse that helps mold the self-image of the people we are talking about. And for most of the people with disabilities that I know, they would like to be thought of first as who they are, not what they have. And that goes for me, too.