What Do We Call Ourselves . . .

. . . and what do we want others to call us

by Richard Mooney

  In this age of political correctness, controversy rages within all minoritycultures over the "right" terms that should be used when referring totheir constituents. The "physically disabled" community is no exception.And like other communities, there is not universal agreement amongpeople with physical disabilities as to what they would like to be called.

  Notwithstanding these ambiguities, we can say with some degree ofcertainty that some terms are clearly "out." For example, "crippled" and"invalid" (an interesting term whose primary meaning is "having notruth") used to be "in" but are now definitely "out." "Handicapped" seemsto be in the gray area presently, but "disabled" and "physically challenged"seem to have gained favor.

  To confuse things further, it seems acceptable for people with physicaldisabilities to use certain terms to refer to themselves--"gimp" and "crip,"for example--but they're clearly not okay for use by "normies."

  What do people with limb absence like to be called? Are we "amputees?"Simple observation of the community reveals that term is the mostcommonly used by its members, themselves--much the same as peoplewith diabetes commonly refer to themselves as "diabetics." Are we "limbdeficient?" Or are we "people with amputations?"

  While many of us feel political correctness is an issue gone mad, there isa perfectly valid basis for concern about language. Language is powerful,not only to express our thoughts and ideas, but it is equally powerfulsymbolically. While some words can be relatively benign in terms ofmeaning, they can be potentially damaging symbolically. Take "amputee"as an example. "Amputee" is a word that comes from a medical conditioncalled "amputation." Yet "amputees" are human beings. Do we really wantto be referred to as a medical condition?

  These questions have a quite practical side. As I work in the communityof people with amputations I hear many horror stories about how peopleare dehumanized and objectified in various ways by medical andrehabilitation professionals--specialists that should be humanizing andhelping the people they serve, not dehumanizing and alienating them.Over time, I have become increasingly concerned about this and I havecome to the conclusion that one reason for their behavior is that theyhabitually refer to their human clients as medical conditions.

  Surgeons say they have a gall bladder to see on the sixth floor.Nephrologists say they have a diabetic in the waiting room. Andprosthetists say they have an amputee in the casting room. Seemsinnocent enough--maybe because we're all used to it--but I'm convincedthat the negative symbolism of referring to human beings as medicalconditions actually reinforces treating them as less than human.

  I'm equally convinced that the positive symbolism of habitually referingto their clients as "people with . . . " would be equally powerful in undoingthe harm. Certainly, even if I'm right, it will take a long time. But since thelongest journey begins with a single step, I'm willing to try to take that stepnow and preach it to others whenever I can. I made this same pointstrongly when I spoke at the 1996 American Academy of Orthotists andProsthetists annual meeting in Florida and in other recent presentationsI've made to rehabilitation professionals and students.

  Am I right or wrong? You tell me. But before you do, think about themessage sent by many organizations that exist to provide support andencouragement to people with amputations, such as the Mutual AmputeeAid Foundation, the American Amputee Foundation, and the AmputeeCoalition of America to mention only three of many. Have we met theenemy? Is it us?.

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