“History” is not the reason to confront ableist language. “Now” is.

I’m seeing words like “idiot,” “dumb,” “stupid” et cetera used liberally by…well, liberals, so in lieu of hiring a professional arsonist, here’s a wee history lesson…

The word, “idiot” originated in Ancient Greece, and referred to a person absorbed in the individual as opposed to the public, particularly with regard to political participation. Essentially “idiots” were born and “citizens” were made through education.

Imagine a libertarian, but without any interest in voting or organizing politically (some do organize; I’ve seen the Twitter accounts).

The meaning shifted throughout the centuries, but it wasn’t until the early 20th century that a leading American eugenicist (remember those guys?) popularized “idiot” as a medical classification for people with cognitive impairments. An “idiot” became a person with a “mental age of less than three years.” An “imbecile” was a person with a “mental age of 3 to 7.” A “moron” (coined by said eugenicist) had a “mental age of 7 to 10.”

Note the infantilization of disability; a tool of exclusion as old as calling black men “boy.”

I bring that up because it’s important to confront how axes of oppression intersect with and amplify each other. Half of all people killed by police in the United States have a mental disability of some kind. Since 1998, “half of those killed by Toronto police while in mental distress” have been black men (Toronto’s population is about 8% black).

That 1 in 4 statistic for Canadian women? It’s far too many. It’s a travesty. For women with mental disabilities, it’s 4 out of 5.

If you’re like me and think rape culture is both very real and in need of confrontation, questioning your use of language that dehumanizes the people who are most at risk of it is a good start.

“Retard” actually originated as a verb, meaning “to hinder” or “make slow.” It may have been used describe the process of applying for and receiving disability benefits in Canada (it took me a year), or how much time it took us to allow mentally disabled people to vote.

If you guessed 1963, you’d be wrong. 1983.

Haha still wrong it was 1993.

Like “retard,” “stupid” has a Latin origin; it meant “to be amazed or stunned.” It may have been used to describe my face if a single potential employer had ever given me an interview when my application disclosed my disability. Or my face when I learned that of the 47% of disabled Canadians who are employed, nearly a third feel the need to hide it from their employer.

*Raises hand*

“Dumb” has Germanic origin, its root, “dheu” referring to dust or vapour. It has been used historically to describe people who cannot speak, hence “dumbwaiter,” a silent device that serves as a waiter.

Well, it’s a good thing we don’t have echoes of that anymore, like paying disabled folk sub-minimum wages to shred paper oh wait of course we do.

Some disabled people struggle with self-advocacy. Some don’t. Some prefer person-first language. Some don’t. Most people think our capitalist social contract has a clause where we show up for those who cannot participate. They don’t know this young British Columbia man has been incarcerated since boyhood for being autistic.

Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 8.39.37 PM

Forensic Psychiatric “Hospital,” Coquitlam BC.

It’s common to invoke history when drawing attention to casual ableism in our vocabulary. Heck, I’ve done it here, if only to point out that the many current reasons for scrutinizing the language we use should be more than adequate. I would find the argument that one isn’t intending to disparage disabled people when using slurs with objectively ableist histories more reassuring if the systemic discrimination facing us had disappeared completely as the common use of those words shifted. Call me when I can disclose a mental illness to an employer without finding myself mysteriously cut from the schedule; then we can talk.

Yes, I get that when someone with “activist” in their Twitter bio calls an abusive troll “stupid,” they’re likely not thinking of disabled people in that moment, but that’s kind of the whole point. I’m loath to treat ability and disability as a binary here, but abled people are segregated from their disabled peers from kindergarten onward. Disability is something that happens in that “other” room — on that “other” bus, when in reality 15% of people have one, and they’re our lovers and co-creators.

Of course the offensiveness of the word, “retard” is imperceptible to someone who has never been called it because of a facial asymmetry. Of course it’s imperceptible to someone who has never disclosed their disability to a potential sex partner and been told they should be sterilized. It isn’t imperceptible to me BECAUSE THOSE THINGS HAVE HAPPENED TO ME.

People don’t get annoyed with me when I’m in their way in the grocery store because they’re a eugenicist like the guy who gave us our system of differentiating IQ levels (okay maybe that one date of mine). They get annoyed with me because they never learned to consider possible disability when encountering a behaviour that appears non-compliant or anti-social.

For me, that means frequent public awkwardness and occasional discrimination. For others, it means the potential for a fatal encounter with a police officer.

If you’re still “not offended by language,” I’m gonna go ahead and assume you’re not offended by that 4 out of 5 stat either.

Language enables society to dis-able, and ableism is in the very mortar of our language. We build community by rallying together to commiserate about that “crazy” ex, or that “idiot” driver, or that “dumb” politician, and then scoff with callous anti-intellectualism (and, I might add, no sense of irony) at those who ask us to question the meaning of these words. You might not be pointing directly at a disabled or mentally ill person when you say them, but then again you might be without realizing it; either way you’re benefitting from the structures those words continue to impose upon us.

Breaking up mortar requires a pretty big hammer. I invite you to grab one.


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