The Language of Disability

All throughout history, socio-cultural behavior and mindset have invalidated the experience of Persons with Disabilities. The phenomenon of Disability has been seen in various culture of human history as being an individual tragedy, shame and unworthiness. We define our ideology of a “Human being”, restricting many people from seeing themselves as inferior. In his book, Introducing Disability Studies, Ronald J. Berger reports that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, one of United States finest President, had to always hide his polio-induced paralysis and use of wheelchair (2013, 1). This was probably because he did not want to be seen as weak. In the history of Germany, specifically, during the National Socialist era Persons living with Disabilities were seen as victims of Euthanasia. It is said about 300.000 Persons living with Disability and mental sicknesses were murdered (https://www.gedenkort-t4.eu/de/biografien). I presume the leadership of the then third Reich didn’t want their nation to be seen as weak. In the advertising industry today, if your body is not shaped in a particular way, you can hardly be featured. Men ought to have a ‘V’ with six or eight packs, whereas women are required to be slim and trendy with a Coca-cola shape. Hardly will you see people with a huge body; disabled persons are totally written out.


How we think about people determines how we define them and therefore, how we call them. In the last few days, I have spoken to a couple of friends from different cultures and languages asking them the simple question: “How do you call Persons with Disabilities (One who sits in Wheelchair, one with hearing disabilities and the blind) in your language?” Not everyone answered me but the responses were both interesting and challenging. To begin with, words such as ‘lame’, ‘gimp’, ‘spastic’ are terms that were or are in most cases used in the English Language to refer to such persons; whereas phrases such as: ‘To turn a deaf ear to’ (literally meaning to ignore someone), ‘a blind leading a blind’ etc. are used to show how impossible it is to be seen as a normal human being when one lives with a disability. ‘How can the blind lead the blind’? Meaning a blind person has limited or no chance to direct. In German, the term ‘behinderten’ used for Persons with Disability, which secretly has in it ‘to hinder’, has among its many meanings ‘Nuisance’. And ‘behindert sein’ is in my opinion even grammatically and morally wrong.


According to Wikipedia, Akan language is major language spoken by about 81% of the people living in southern Ghana, in 2010 (totaling about 105 million people), 41% of the people of Ivory Coast, in 2017 (about 346 thousand people) and about 70 thousand of the inhabitant of Togo, in 2014. That is a huge number of people. And in this tribe, a person sitting in a wheelchair, irrespective of the physical impairment, is called “Obubuafo”, which literally means “a broken person”. What a shame and a horrid definition of a person! They call a deaf person “Mumuo”, which is a definition of how they try to express themselves. But in the same culture, the term ‘Mu mu’ is used to refer to the sound of Cattle. How horrible it is to tag a Human with such a name. And last but not least, a blind person is called “Onifurafo”, someone whose eyes are closed. Sadly, the Gas of Ghana call persons with such disabilities the same names.


In Indonesia, a person who sits in Wheelchair is called “Lumpuh” (a condition where a person cannot move part or whole of the body as a result of a disease), a person with hearing impairment is called “Tuli” and a blind person called “Buta”. These on one hand describe the challenge or nature of disability and even though the persons with disabilities themselves agree to the names, some people think these names sound a bit rough. Formally, the person with hearing impairment and seeing disabilities were called ‘Tuna Rungu’ and ‘Tuna Netra’ respectively.


What the subject of Disability Studies and Activists of the subject do is to first of all try to change the mindset of society with respect to these names. But worse case is when you find the persons with disability themselves appropriate these names, and professionals of the field finding it hard to accept the new ideas. When the board and chairmanship of the Spastikerhilfe Berlin eG, a social institution that provides professional and technical assistance to persons with disabilities in Berlin, Germany changed the company’s name to Cooperative Mensch eG, a couple of the staff were not quite in agreement. One skilled employee once chided, “The founders of the company gave it the name Spastikerhilfe, so why don’t we respect their idea?” Well in my view, we totally respect their ideas. But we must know that the perspectives of those days when the company was founded in 1953 were totally different than today. Up until today, most of the Clients of the company call themselves and the company ‘Spastiker(hilfe)’. As I have mentioned earlier, in Indonesia today, the persons with disabilities prefer the names ‘Tuli’, ‘Lumpuh’ or ‘Buta’, which are presumed to be rough, than ‘Tuna’ which is a bit more respectful. This is how society ingrains negativity into our minds and use it to contain us. But we all have the responsibility to change our minds.


As I end this article, I solemnly invite you, my dear readers, to help me continue the gathering of the data; help continue the list. Please answer the in the comments the question: “How do you call a person who sits in Wheelchair; a person with hearing impairment and a person with seeing impairment in your mother tongue? And do you think this name is politically correct in our modern world?

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