Viewpoint: Language Barrier

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News December 2016

Language and the wheelchair community

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I’m a writer. Words are my tools.  Being a bit of a word nerd, I’m fascinated by how language is dynamic and evolutionary. The internet evolved “viral” from a fearful word into a desirable word.  

Yet our language is filled with archaic words such as “threshold.” It originated literally from the piece below a door holding in the thresh or hay that covered the dirt floors. Thresholds are still used, though they now serve to keep things out rather than in.  

Common use or descriptive purpose keeps some terms from being considered archaic, such as “burning the candle at both the ends.” We also continue to use the technically inaccurate terms “dial” and “hang up” for our cellphones.

Some words seem to fall by the wayside over time. “Thee” and “thou” are normally only seen now in quotes from Shakespeare, the Bible or if you visit Amish country.  

Other words are deliberately retired. During the 1960s’ Civil Rights Movement, the word “black” was chosen as an empowering term. It replaced the words “colored” and “Negro” as racial descriptions. This change and the later addition of “African-American” were conscious choices.  

A Pet Peeve

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed in 1990. The ADA sought to change the language to use what is known as people-first language.

Many found the word “handicap” derogatory because of its origin. The word “handicapped” comes
from beggars with cap-in-hand or raising a hand to their cap as a gesture of thanks.  

The ADA specifies the terms “person with disability” or “people with disabilities.” This is an effort to replace offensive terms such as “deaf and dumb” with the more accurate term “deaf
and nonverbal.”

This brings us to a pet peeve of mine. The archaic phrases “wheelchair bound” and “confined to
a wheelchair.”

My wheelchair is a tool I use. The proper terminology is either “wheelchair user” or “mobility impaired.” It has been 26 years since the passage of the ADA. Use of these archaic terms indicates to me a lack of knowledge or research by a writer.

Perhaps the reason this annoys me so much is because all of the ADA training and public speaking I did in the 1990s. Every time, in some form or fashion, I got the question, “What are we supposed to call them now?”

Archaic Terms

I explained to people the difference between descriptions and labeling, and I had some fun with this topic. I used to tell people, “We have names for you, too.”

“AB” is for able-bodied. “TAB” is for temporarily able-bodied, because you all are. “CRAB” is for currently regarded as able-bodied. And my favorite term for y’all is walkie. 

I’m a roller, and you are a walkie. Very descriptive terms, but I would not use these in my writing except in very limited context.

So while we may continue to
use the archaic terms “dialing your cellphone” and “hanging up” when you finish, I hope lazy journalists will learn to stop using the terms “wheelchair bound” or “confined to a wheelchair.”  

An independent quad, Tony Boatright is a commercial copywriter and Paralyzed Veterans of America member living in Penonomé, Panama.

The opinions of the author do not necessarily reflect the position of Paralyzed Veterans of America.   n


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Viewpoint: Language Barrier


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