One thing that kept coming up when I wrote my blog about the idea of a cure for autism, was the fact that the word cure made it sound like autism was some kind of disease. Also, I have noticed a lot of anger recently on Twitter about people on the T.V. using the term `autism sufferer`, which again implies some sort of illness. Even the term disorder, as in autism spectrum disorder, has its fair share of critics, but what about the terms disability or disabled? Are these the correct terms? And ultimately does it even matter what term you use?
Organisations like the National Autistic Society refer to autism as a disability whereas the DSM refers to it as a disorder. But the NHS says that on its own autism is not a disability, but that sometimes, depending on where you are on the spectrum, it may come along with other things that would mean the person was disabled.
Lots of people make a big deal about not wanting to be referred to as disabled. They may claim that because they are able to get on with their lives and do other things they can’t possibly have a disability, whereas I would say that autism is a disability. In some cases it disables you from doing certain things, therefore it is a disability. In my view, refusing to accept the words disability or disabled simply give the words more of a stigma. It is basically like saying `if you can still do things and make something of your life you can’t possibly be disabled`. Somebody like Stephen Hawking is quite obviously disabled; he can’t walk or even move, and is unable to speak now without the aid of a computer. The fact that he has achieved things that very few other people in the world could achieve, doesn’t mean that he is not disabled – just as being disabled doesn’t mean you can’t achieve those things. It is the same with people at the Paralympics; they were without question disabled – that’s the whole point of the event – if they are going to claim they are not disabled they may as well just pack up and go home. Of course there is the whole other argument that people with disabilities should be able to compete in the Olympics, which I think would be fair enough, but that is a different debate.
In my mind, when people refuse to accept that they are disabled, they give the word all kinds of negative connotations – just accept it and move on – it`s not like people are going to be calling you disabled every day for the rest of your life. Ultimately words are meaningless, and the only reason they have any power at all is that we give them power with our reactions to them. If you change the word disabled what do you replace it with? Disorder is another word that sparks a lot of controversy for exactly the same reasons. If you use the term differently-abled, you deserve a punch in the face – because it basically means the exact same thing, just in a more patronising tone. Having said all this, if the word disabled really does distress you, you don’t have to use it yourself. I can’t think of a time in my life when I have ever referred to myself as being disabled, or of a time when someone has ever directly referred to me as disabled But I do consider autism to be a disability, and the knock on effect of that of course is that I would be considered disabled.
I suppose what I really want to try to get through to people is that, yes, to a degree words are important – but they are only as important as you make them. A hundred and fifty years ago the word nincompoop was considered to be one of the worst insults you could throw at somebody. Language changes and evolves, and whatever new words come in and replace the old ones, eventually somebody will get offended by them and they will have to go. It is similar to the debate over the word prostitute – apparently the term now is sex-worker; but that could mean anything; a porn star could be a sex worker. Pimps or strippers work in the sex industry. Words seem to go from harmless to offensive all the time nowadays – a lot of words that a hundred years or so ago would have been given as a medical diagnosis, such as idiot or imbecile, are now considered to be insults. Now, I am not saying that those words should be acceptable, of course not, but it is simply the evolution of language. Some words were used in a clinical sense, then began to be used as slang – and then insults – until they were judged to be unacceptable for their original purpose, and new words needed to be found. Much the same thing is happening in America with the word retard at the moment – it is a much more socially acceptable word over there than in the UK, and in some places will still be used in a medical sense, but because of its connotations as an insult, it is finally becoming much less acceptable to actually refer to somebody who is disabled as a retard. I don’t think it`s a bad thing if Americans stop using that word in a clinical sense also.
In reality it is just the way language evolves; around half of the most well-known swear words today were originally farming terms across England or Germany. Language evolved, and at some point those words stopped being socially acceptable agricultural slang, and became insults – much the same way that insults from a hundred years ago or so, like brat, became socially acceptable slang. Certain words are created as insults from the start; in history whenever one race has tried to exert superiority over another, language has always been one of the most powerful weapons – refer to a group of people with words that make them seem less than human and it is easier to do atrocious things to them. So these words are always considered insults, and understandably so, but what about other words, such as disability? Well as I say, it`s basically pointless to get offended by it. I mean if somebody really wanted to insult you would they just say `you`re disabled`? There are a whole plethora of other insults available, and it is a pretty substandard bully indeed who would fall back on `disabled` as an insult. I just feel that there are far more important things to focus on than terminology when it comes to the word disabled where autism is concerned. Autism, no matter how many positives it may bring to your life, will come with its fair share of difficulties – and it is really much better to focus on dealing with those difficulties, without bothering to think about the terminology behind it all.
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