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The Language of Oppression

Editor's Note: The Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians supports the view that the real barriers to equality and full inclusion of persons with disabilities are attitudinal and environmental, not the disabilities themselves. It also adheres to the human-rights approach to disability-related issues. Monika Penner is a trauma therapist with a keen interest in anti-oppressive activism. She lives in Edmonton, Alberta.

Language used to describe disability has shifted over time, reflecting changes in attitudes towards People with Disabilities. The lenses through which we view disability have certainly broadened, but even in 2012, we are inundated with stigmatizing, condescending and inaccurate language. This article will explore the connections between language and ableist perceptions, and how commonly used words continue to misrepresent and oppress People with Disabilities.

The medical model is the most historically rooted way that many people continue to view disability today. As scientists and physicians studied the human body, so developed the perception of disability as an "illness" or "problem" that needed "treatment". Previous to the medical model was the superstitious or religious view of disability, under which countless Persons with Disabilities were killed and tortured as “witches" or "devils". Unfortunately, the medical model has also subjected People with Disabilities to pain and even death through experimentation and barbaric "treatments". Most recently, the medical model forced unwanted abortions and sterilizations on persons deemed "unfit", which included vast numbers of persons with perceived cognitive and psychiatric disabilities.

Language rooted in the medical model stresses compliance, passivity and dependence of Persons with Disabilities, as well as the notion that disabilities are undesirable. Persons with Disabilities are considered "patients" who require "experts" or "professionals" to "treat" their "condition". They are expected to be passive recipients of services who "suffer" from blindness, paraplegia, and/or psychiatric disabilities. Terms like "quality of life" are commonly used, erroneously suggesting that people innately experience their disability as limiting, or emotionally or physically painful.

And while People with Disabilities do, and should be permitted to, make their own decisions, especially in health-care services related to their disability (e.g. assisted living devices and training, medication, or psychological and physical therapies), the lens of the medical model continues to stress power imbalances between professionals and the Person with a Disability (who is truly their best expert), as well as the notion that disability is something that should be "treated" versus something that exists as one of many complex features of individuals.

Tied closely to the medical model of disability is the charitable model, which is founded on providing services to Persons with Disabilities "in their best interests". Again, the professional, and not the Person with a Disability, holds the power. And, again, the Person with a Disability is a "recipient" of service, often having to depend on charities to receive what should be their intrinsic right.

On the website "If I Can't Dance Is It Still My Revolution" (, A.J. Withers describes how euphemisms for disability are used within the charitable model. Politically correct words such as "challenged" and "differently-abled" function to both conceal oppression of Persons with Disabilities and do not in fact change the realities of their lives. Withers writes that using euphemisms:

"doesn't build ramps, or housing; it doesn't provide interpreters or personal support workers; it doesn't bring equality or autonomy; and, it doesn't abolish segregation or discrimination. The attempts by well-meaning liberals to establish "politically correct" terms to define disability are just that, attempts to dictate how things change for our benefit. In this case, nothing changes but the label. The entire charity approach is designed to ensure that no real change ever occurs. It is about people doing good for others, it is not about change, it is not about liberation, it is about the agents of charity--the do-gooders feeling better about themselves and the world they live in."

The descriptions of Persons with Disabilities as "courageous" are also seen in the charitable model. These references are prevalent in today's media, and allude not to a significant accomplishment, but rather something achieved "in spite" of a person having a disability. They are problematic because they view disability as something to be "overcome", and that disability must be so incredibly terrible that if People with Disabilities can do anything beyond eek out a meagre existence, they must be commended. Disability activists call these depictions "super-crip" stories.

The language of "vulnerability" also comes from the charitable model of disability. At its very basic level, the idea that persons are innately "vulnerable" brings out the notion that they need to be "protected". However, terrible atrocities have been committed against Persons with Disabilities in the name of "protection", including segregation, confinement, forced "treatment", sterilization and euthanasia.

In addition, the word "vulnerable" suggests that there is something inherent within the person that makes them susceptible to violence and oppression, versus that Persons with Disabilities are made vulnerable through societal barriers and oppression. For instance, the terms "at risk" and "vulnerable" have been used to identify persons experiencing higher rates of sexual abuse/assault. What is concealed by this language is that Persons with Disabilities experience higher rates of sexualized violence due to oppression, causing compliance, dependence and social isolation--factors sexual offenders use to abuse their victims.

Similarly, the term "marginalization" has become increasingly used by well-meaning people to identify groups that experience oppression, such as Persons with Disabilities, Aboriginals, sexual minorities and racialized communities. When used as an adjective, however, as in "marginalized populations", this term may suggest that there is something intrinsic within oppressed persons that causes their experiences of marginalization.

For instance, People with Disabilities experience atrocious levels of unemployment, underemployment and educational disadvantage because educational and employment systems actively position disability to the margins. Braille, audio books, American Sign Language interpreters, accessible language and other requirements of Persons with Disabilities are rarely positioned as central within these systems; rather, Persons with Disabilities require "accommodations" because their needs are an add-on to mainstream services.

The medical and charity models of disability are still incredibly prevalent in today's society, even as people have tried to remove overtly derogatory terms from their conversation. However, Disability Rights activists have developed their own frameworks for understanding and challenging ableist oppression. The social model of disability was developed in opposition to the condescending and pathologizing medical and charitable models, and for the first time separated impairment from disability, arguing that social inequalities such as attitudinal barriers and unequal access cause limitations, not disabilities themselves.

The most recently defined disability paradigm is the radical model, which likewise acknowledges the role of oppression in creating limitations. However, the radical model also advocates against trying to become less disabled, noting that disability is one of many features an individual may have. As Withers writes: "To us, disability is not a point of individual or social tragedy, but a natural and necessary part of human diversity. The tragedy of disability is not our minds and bodies but oppression, exclusion and marginalization."

And so continues the evolution of language, with activists leading the way.


Excellent! Most enlightening.

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