Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Reassigning Meaning

Change your language and you change your thoughts. ~Karl Albrecht

My husband and I took on a few home organizational projects last week. One was to re-organize our bookcases by topic.

When we finished I looked over and saw the section dedicated to the disability civil rights movement… essays, poetry, fiction, biographies, and textbooks. It was reassuring to see them all together. Their authors guide and direct my thinking about a movement that has so graciously embraced me, provided a focus to my thoughts and actions, and given me a strong sense of identity and community. They have truly helped me define who I am.

I pulled Simi Linton’s, Claming Disability, from the shelf and began to re-read it. It is a scholarly book, sometimes difficult to read, in particular for a slow reader like me; especially if it is not assigned reading. However, it is so worth wading in to. From the first page of the first chapter, Reassigning Meaning, it grabbed me.

Someone Else’s Names Will Always Hurt Me

All words have meaning; and who chooses the words we speak have meaning too. All oppressed people have lost, through some sort of domination or conquest, the ability to define themselves. The dominant society defines the oppressed, not only as a group, but as individuals members too; and those words stick. We only need to look to other liberation movements for examples.

  • In the 1960s, the Black Power movement was a political movement. It expressed a new radical consciousness among “Negroes” in the US. Young activists rejected “the man’s” terms. They choose to redefine themselves and their movement on their own terms, taking control of the language.
  • Native people in the US have also followed this path. In my home state, Native Americans fought a decades long battle about Chief Illiniwek, the University of Illinois mascot. Dominant culture called it a “revered symbol;” Native people called it racist. Finally, he is gone; but the fight for control of the language (and images) continues… As I write this, the Mummers Parade, in Philadelphia, is on TV in the background. I looked up and saw a very Anglo looking “Indian Chief” stereotypically strutting down the street to an old rock and roll song.
  • “Queer theory” is a field of Gender Studies in academic institutions; it has turned the definition of “queer”, on its ear.

Linton argues it is our job, as disability academics and civil rights advocates to wrestle the words used to define disabled people and claim them and their definitions, as ours alone to define and determine.

Linton examined the specific word, “disability.” The medical definition regards us as weak on several levels. It means less than. It creates a “complex web of social ideals, institutional structures, and governmental policies that dictate our lives." It allows society to determine our value, and position in society.

Conversely, when we claim the word “disability” and redefine our struggle in socio-economic, political, and environmental terms, we claim our strength and our individual and group identities. We say… we are disabled by our inability to access the rights and benefits granted to other members of this society, not by a physical, mental, or intellectual capacity society may or may not perceive.

There are numerous examples of advocates who are fight this war of words:

  • Jacqui at Terrible Palsy recently blogged about the word, suffering in her recent blog, Words, where she uses a photo essay to debunk the myth.
  • Penny Richards at Disability Studies recently took on ableist language, in her piece, A New Vocabulary.
  • Take Kay Olson’s blog, The Gimp Parade; the name itself is a struggle for control of the language. As is Ms. Crip Chick's blog... their content aptly amplifies their fight.
  • The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network wrestled successfully with language when they led the protest against the NYU Child Study Center's "Ransom Notes" ad campaign.

The dominant society is not going to lie down and accept any new definition and new terms we choose to call ourselves. There are social and political benefits to holding on to the status quo. We continue to be part of a permanent underclass; a class that is exploited and used for the dominant culture’s purposes. Even politically progressive people are slow or unwilling to accept our movement's basic language and definitions.

As with other liberation movements, we need to continue to claim the vocabulary that describes and defines us and move it toward social and political contexts. It is the only way to claim or full rights as citizens.

Language is the armory of the human mind, and at once contains the trophies of its past and the weapons of its future conquests. ~Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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