It’s downright crippling

I’ve been watching TV for ten minutes now. In that time I’ve heard Newt Gingrich use the word “crippling” (in the context of the Iraq war) and Condoleeza Rice use the word “disabling” (in the context of North Korea) in negative ways.

These words are jumping out at me from the screen. I’ve become more aware recently of the power of the language we use. It maintains the status quo, it reaffirms our assumptions and it also is evidence of our mindsets – positive or negative.

I’ve heard the word “cripple” (and its variations “crippled” “crippling”) a lot lately. And some people might dismiss what I’m writing as a semantic discussion – and even tell me I should get out more.

But the reason it bothers me is what this use of language leads to. The negative connotations are bad enough. But it leads to direct usage at us.

Yesterday I was in Target. I passed a female shopper with a preschool daughter. The child pointed at me in my wheelchair and asked her mother “What’s wrong with her?”

Her mother replied “She’s a cripple.”

“What’s a cripple?” the kid asked.

OK. Stop the camera. My stomach is churning with anger . I’m getting ready to use my gross motor movement in a negative way. I look right at the mother, who avoids eye contact with me.

She replies “A cripple is someone who is different from us.”

“Excuse me,” I piped up.

“Hi,” the kid said.

“Hi,” I replied. “May I make a suggestion?” I asked the mother.

The mother was looking at me with outright shock. For all I know she was thinking “It speaks”. “What?” she asked me.

I took her out of earshot of the kid and said “The word cripple offends me. Calling us people with disabilities is really better.”

“OK,” she said uncertainly. Then she added “I didn’t know you could hear me.”

Whenever we use language in a negative or derogatory way, people hear us. In this instance, I was more concerned that her daughter heard her – and I told her that. The truth is, we never know who overhears us.

And another thing – people with disabilities are not different from anyone else. But that’s for another day.

Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan

1 Comment

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One response to “It’s downright crippling

  1. I love how you handled this situation. I will definitely remember this for the future.

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