Cover Image
close this bookSustainable Development and Persons with Disabilities: The Process of Self-Empowerment (ADF, 1995, 117 p.)
close this folderSection I: Understanding and perception
close this folderChapter 1: Introduction
View the documentObjectives of this guide
View the documentWho may use the guide
View the documentLanguage and liberation
View the documentDebate and discussion must continue

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 addressed.

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 disabilities.

Please call me by my name, not by my disability.

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
The person
But only the disability,
Who is blind?

If you cannot hear
Your brother's
Cry for justice
Then who is deaf?

If you do not communicate
With your sister
But separate her from you,
Who is disabled, her or you?

If your heart and your mind
Do not reach out to
Your neighbour,
Then who has
The mental handicap?

If you do not stand up
For the rights of all persons
Then who is the cripple?

Your attitude towards
Persons with disabilities
May be our biggest handicap,
And yours too.

So the struggle to remove the
prejudice of language is itself a
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 Feldman)