Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Trouble With Ableist Metaphors

"I was blind to the consequences."

"You need to learn how to stand up for yourself."

"Her pleas fell on deaf ears."

I'm not usually one to language police other people.  There are a few terms that I absolutely despise (such as the r-word or "wheelchair bound") that I will usually make a fuss over.  Then there are terms like "handicapped" or "special needs" that make my skin crawl, but aren't bad enough, in my mind, to the point where I will speak up.  I need to choose my battles carefully, and despite being a word nerd (I have now spent several minutes pondering over the grammatical structure of this sentence), language usually isn't one of them.

But I was struck recently when, in the course of emails back and forth about inspiration porn and ableism, a colleague used the metaphor "I was blind and now I see."  I'm sure he had the best of intentions and didn't even stop to consider the ableist nature of the metaphor - but that's sort of the point.  Ableism is so incredibly deeply ingrained in our culture that people use ableist language - yes, even people who should know better, I fully admit that I probably invoke these metaphors far more often that I should - without a second thought every day.  I'm not sure that happens with any other form of oppression (feel free to correct me if I'm wrong).

But wait!  I should stop being so literal, shouldn't I?  After all, it's just an expression!  No one actually means them!  Which is all well and good, but as my dear friend K says often, intent is not magic.  But the problem comes when we take both the literal and metaphorical definitions and step back to critically analyze what we mean when we say such things.

The problem with metaphors like "I was blind and now I see" is they overwhelmingly position the disability as the negative.  When you're "blind to the consequences", when your voice "falls on deaf ears", when you need to "stand up for yourself", those are all negative situations that should be rectified.  In contrast, having your "eyes opened", being "all ears" and "standing your ground" are situations that are generally applauded.  Sadly, I never hear anybody being told to "sit their ground".  Disability is synonymous with lack of insight, inability to communicate and not having the power or the intelligence to have agency over your own life.  Sound familiar?  Those are all stereotypes that are associated with all kinds of disability.  And now you start to see where, perhaps, the metaphors came from.

I'm not saying that everyone should automatically cut these types of metaphors out of their vocabulary.  What I am saying is that people need to stop and really think about their intended meaning - and then think about how the metaphor portrays disability.  If the metaphor is one that positions ability as positive and disability as negative, you may want to consider another term.  Because that's the great thing about language - the possibilities are endless.


Maryah said...

My family uses a phrase that I that I think you might like, which I've recently started hearing in other places, too: "Where you stand on an issue depends on where you sit."

Anonymous said...

I was actually thinking about the phrase "the blind leading the blind" the other day in relation to mental illness. It seams to me that the blind would be the best to lead the blind. Someone who has sight would not know how to give direction to someone who does not. You cannot say, "turn left at the red building." It means nothing. However had a blind person previously succeeded on the journey, they might say something like "keep the creek to your left." As we learn to successfully navigate the pitfalls of an ableist society, I think it is important to continue guiding others. I am proud to say that my therapist has a therapist. I trust her more for it.

Kerima said...

Thank you this is one of those disability 101 posts that needs to be out there. It was thought provoking, honest, and timely. It makes me rethink structural ableism. Brilliant.