Language and liberation
Whilst we are on the question of language, there is one more
small, but important, matter that we must clear before we proceed to the text.
No social group (with the possible exception of women in contemporary times) is
as sensitive as the people with disabilities on the question of how they are
And rightly so. The disabled people as a group have been subjected
to much social abuse. People often refer to them not by their name but by their
Please call me by my name, not by my
There is also a tendency to view them as "abnormal" and therefore
not qualified to carry out a "normal" life of living and loving. In many local
languages, there are many labelling words referring to people with disabilities.
And yet, as the following poem by Tony Wong of Jamaica shows, it is often the
"able"-bodied who have more serious disabilities than those who are physically
or intellectually impaired. The attitude of the able-bodied disables both the
abled and the disabled.
Who is Disabled?
If you fail to see
But only the
Who is blind?
If you cannot hear
Cry for justice
who is deaf?
If you do not communicate
With your sister
But separate her
Who is disabled, her or you?
If your heart and your mind
Do not reach out to
Then who has
The mental handicap?
If you do not stand up
For the rights of all persons
who is the cripple?
Your attitude towards
Persons with disabilities
May be our
And yours too.
So the struggle to remove the
prejudice of language is itself
struggle for liberation.
On the other hand, however, in some cases this exercise has now
swung to the other extreme. People, especially the able bodied, seek to find
words that salve their conscience rather than change their prejudice. Words such
as "mentally challenged" are invented as if words would change reality. The
question may be asked: Who coined this terminology - the abled-bodied person or
the "mentally impaired"? It is worse when words become a substitute for changing
that reality. Language becomes a smokescreen to hide deeper prejudices. Calling
a "black man" a "person of colour" does not remove the deeper prejudice, just as
calling a drunk a "person of different sobriety" does not change the reality,
nor calling a blind person one who is "optically inconvenienced." Some of the
worst offenders are those in the medical profession who refer to the physically
disabled persons as "orthopaedically impaired".
We must fight against linguistic insults, to be sure. But let us
not hide behind linguistic relief either. To bring real relief we have to change
the material and social reality of the disabled people. We have to change the
behaviour of both the PWDs and the able bodied people by developing a positive
attitude towards one another. This is the essence of mainstream integration.
Venkatesh: "I prefer to be called 'blind', rather than a
'visually impaired person'. 'Visually impaired person' is such a mouthful.
Whether you call me blind or visually impaired is not important. The most
important thing is what I feel about myself. It's about self-esteem."
Coleridge: "So does that mean that blindness is part of
your identity which you feel quite happy with?"
Venkatesh: "If I am what I am today, you know, deep inside,
the way my mind works, it is because of my disability. Disability has enriched
my life as a person."
Amadou Issaka, Rehabilitation Project
for the Blind in Niger, taking notes on his Brailler. (Photo by Marla