Sugar-coating Oppression

In the history of mankind, all groups which are oppressed or marginalized will have to first assert their identity as one of the steps towards emancipation. To this end, the disability rights movement in Africa can not afford to remain confused and confusing. One of the ways in which identity is established is through language. The questions which we may ask ourselves are:

  • What are we called?
  •  What do we call ourselves? And
  •  what do we desire to be called?

It would be harmonious if what we desire to be called is what we call ourselves and what we are called. Some time in April 2014, I was invited to make a presentation at the midlands State university in Zimbabwe, on disability and sexual reproductive rights. I had to work very hard since I had to share the stage with Shinsoman, a dancehall artist. It was by no means an easy task but I pulled through. However, at such a high institution of learning, I heard a phrase which made my ears tingle.  Many speakers talked of the need to ensure the inclusion of “differently abled people”. When I had a casual conversation with one of the organizers, it was put to me that the term disabled was rather rude and denoted some kind of inability. Disability friendly language is a huge topic and I do not wish to delve into it in this post. However, I am firmly convinced that the use of “differently abled” to refer to persons with disabilities can raise more smoke than fire and can even lead to identity crisis in the disability rights movement.

I have found very useful information against the use of that term from this article:

The article resonates with what I subscribe to and I would encourage all those who can to read it. However, for purposes of those who may not have the opportunity to read it, I will give what I consider to be a summary of the arguments raised in objection to the use of that term. The writer, , firstly, emphatically asserts that practically speaking, all human beings are differently abled from one another. The writer gives an example of the fact that some people are better public speakers than others. Some are better cooks than others. According to the writer therefore,  with or without disability, all are differently abled.

The writer then moves to give three reasons why this term is a source of discomfort. I start by reproducing the words of the writer:

“calling someone “differently abled” is euphemistic. It is borderline cutesy and it diminishes the actual experiences of disabled people. It suggests that the term disability should be uncomfortable and therefore should be avoided. What this does is further increase stigma against disabled people by discouraging discussion about disability and what it means to be disabled.”

The writer argues in the second instance that the term actually fails to appreciate that people are different because only the disabled people are thought to be “differently abled”. Therefore according to the writer, the phrase reinforces the unacceptable view that there is a normal way of doing things and that the disabled are diviants from that normal template.

Thirdly, the writer finds fault in the use of the term because it fails to appreciate the social nature of disability and places emphasis in the person who is “differently abled”.

I am fully persuaded to agree with the writer that when we use the term “disabled people” we are not looking down upon ourselves but we are actually defining ourselves within the context of social environments which disable us. I do understand however, that here in Africa, most people prefer the phrase “persons with disabilities” as a more politically correct term and in my blogs, I will use both “disabled persons” and “persons with disabilities” interchangeably. I believe any other attempt to use terms more polite than that could be contrary to the establishment of an identity in which the disability rights movement is able to effectively champion its cause. In fact, the desire to be more polite than that is sugar-coating the oppression and discrimination that disabled persons go through everyday.

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