So I guess I lost a friend this week. I wasn’t expecting to, but it happened, and I’m sad. And it happened over such a silly thing: I used a phrase, “blind spots”, in a little poll. My friend, smiling, asked me to change my language so as to not use ‘blind’ like that; it can hurt blind people, you know.
And I took a deep breath. And I said, “no.” I said, “I can’t watch my language like that.”
The conversation went downhill from there.
If you’re screwing up your breath to cheer at me for pushing back against those unreasonable Social Justice Warriors and their unreasonable demands on normal people just trying to live their lives, turn around right now and walk on, because you aren’t my friend for damn sure. Anyway, I don’t think you’re going to like the rest of this piece.
Because the truth is, I care very much about accommodating people with disabilities. I care a lot about ableism, and I spend a lot of my time thinking about how to make any discussion I’m part of as accessible as possible. I had, in fact, just gone on a long tangent about trying to handle a course discussion without accidentally triggering students who have gender-related trauma only the day before. The last thing I want is to hurt people if I can avoid it.
The truth is, I don’t police my language for potentially ableist turns of phrase or implications because it’s incompatible with my own mental disabilities. I’m on the autism spectrum, see, and I have a history of anxiety and depression, as isn’t uncommon for people like me. I pass for neurotypical very well — I suspect that if my colleagues read this post, I will have astonished several people — but that is largely because people don’t know what autism in adult women looks like, and so I can slide under the radar quite easily.
I have a lot of qualms about posting this, and as I write it, I don’t know whether or not I will bother to publish it. I’m not sure I’m ready to bare that much of my psychiatric history, or to reveal the potent labels that inform my self-understanding so deeply. People don’t handle that shit well, and I was tired of fending off assumptions about what autism looked like and how I “should” act if I was “really” autistic spectrum by the time I was sixteen. That was ten years ago, and I was only diagnosed when I was twelve.
(Here’s a hint about what autism spectrum looks like in a woman my age, incidentally: not fucking Sheldon Cooper. Not the six-year-old little Aspie boy you’re envisioning, either. Women don’t get away with that shit; we get pushed back much harder if we’re socially clueless, or we put ourselves at vastly increased risk for rape or abuse. We’re less likely to be diagnosed, too, although I do in fact have an Official Psychiatric Diagnosis somewhere for all the good it does me. I don’t use it, because the social consequences of being an Openly Autistic Person are too much of a fucking pain in the ass to be worth whatever minor accommodations I might get, and I can compensate okay on my own.)
Also: I have a learning disability when it comes to human interaction, dammit, not a learning inability. It took me a while to grasp certain finer social norms, and I learned every single one of them consciously, developing my theories of human social interactions from the observations I made of the people around me. I can give you a conscious reasoning for almost every choice I make in any given social interaction. It makes me a good communicator and a better teacher, because I can always articulate the “why.”
It’s just that it makes those interactions an awful lot of work.
Imagine the human brain as a computer*, with RAM and a hard drive and programs that can be used to accomplish certain tasks when you set them going and an operating system that handles certain things that you need all the time with specialized modules that don’t consume so much RAM. Most people, as far as I can figure, have an operating system that came with a module that makes human nonverbal cues seamlessly intuitive, like walking or running. Mine doesn’t have that. Instead, I constantly have programs running in the background — conscious or semi-conscious thought processes that I use to integrate the cues I pick up and decide how to respond.
I can get away with this because I happen to have a lot of RAM to work with, which is one of the reasons I pretend as well as I do. It’s telling that I am most likely to screw up and miss a socially significant cue when I am tired or distracted, because that means my attention has run out of resources to think through what this new situation is. And when I am tired and missing cues, well, I start getting anxious and fixating on what I can do to make things go well. Turns out having a mind that is constantly irritating everyone around me has given me some baggage about making the mistakes that reveal my alienness in every new way.
On the upside, I laugh at myself well. I don’t really have a choice about it, because it’s laugh or weep so much of the time, and wouldn’t you rather laugh if those were your options? Besides, it’s easier to laugh off the constant tiny insults as people notice my flaws than it is to point them out and deal with the fallout. I laugh a lot.
We’ve gotten a way away from my point, so let me remind you what caused me to lose my friend: she asked me to consider the effect that my word choices had on other people. It’s a small thing, surely; why wouldn’t you make a small effort to make others feel safe?
And therein, of course, lies the rub. I’m making so many small efforts at once that I know from experience that adding this filter atop all the other ones that go towards not seeming too unusual is… not good for my mental health. I run out of that precious attentional energy too quickly. I spend more time dancing on the edge of anxiety, desperately trying to balance my terrified desire for reassurance with the cruel knowledge that repeated requests for reassurance for no apparent reason are obnoxious as hell and likely to just aggravate people into telling me to go away. It’s too much for my poor overloaded RAM to handle, and I crash.
And I look around, and I look and see who is making those small requests for me to keep references to disability that might be offensive out of my vocabulary, and I notice that more often than not, the people asking me to consider my language aren’t the ones directly affected by it. They might not share the particular disability they’re asking me to consider, or they might not identify as having a disability at all. They’re trying to stand up for people who are personally affected, and that’s laudable. They’re people who are trying hard, so hard, to do the right thing by disabled people.
But all those small nudges to change how I speak and avoid problematic language are like taking a miniature version of the small nudges I already carefully integrate and adding it to the reams of algorithms I am already running. It’s not as big, but it’s big enough to be too much for me to carry without constantly diving into self-hating spirals reminding me that I can’t do anything right, that I’m hurting people around me, that I’m not a safe enough person and I can’t do anything right.
And here’s another bit of context, too: among the actual disabled people I know, there’s not a lot of consensus about what words are experienced as actively hurtful and what are experienced as occasionally ouchy if you think hard about it and what are just facts of life, neutral as any other adjective. The main exception is slurs that have been recently used to mock people with cognitive and intellectual disabilities, but aside from that, consensus is pretty slim. And where it exists? Turns out it matters intensely what your particular disability or set of disabilities is.
See, every time I’ve asked a Deaf person or someone with major experience with Deaf communities if a phrase like “selectively deaf” or “deaf to criticism” is offensive, I get confusion and then outrage — because the only real conclusion I’ve heard drawn from that is that the condition of not being able to hear must be inherently shameful, if we can’t even speak the word. There’s a long tradition and history within Deaf communities of being proud of being Deaf, of responding to people who shame Deaf people for not hearing with blunt, nose-thumbed “well, fuck you too then, I’m fine just as I am, hearing or not!”
(It has always reminded me, with some affection, of the old saying Not gay as in happy, but queer as in fuck you. There’s power in saying “Yeah? You think I should be ashamed of being like this? Well fuck you too, buddy, I’m gonna be proud of it, so let me see if I can maybe rub it in your jerk face a little more effectively.” The treatment of words like ‘crazy’ as carefully curated words that must be handled with care is pretty alien to this mindset, and when the two ways of handling marginalization clash, they often do so with a hell of a bang!)
It’s like the question of asking disabled people if they want a cure. Within disorders, you see variation — after all, disabled people are people first, and I’ve never yet met a group of people who didn’t have at least one ornery, contrary asshole in it. Often as not, it’s me. But you see strikingly different consensuses among the communities of people who live with different conditions: chronic pain sufferers tend to be scornful of the idea that it’s better to keep being in pain, why wouldn’t you want to be free of this? while autism spectrum people like me tend to be horrified at what we see as the total erasure of our selves that any hypothetical cure might potentially bring.
It’s not a mental disability/physical disability conundrum, either; as I mentioned, Deaf communities tend to fall on the “I’m fine as I am, it’s all of you fuckers who haven’t bothered to learn to talk to me” side of the spectrum in my experience, while depression or anxiety communities tend to be comfortable saying that they’d like those moods to go the fuck away already, if you wouldn’t mind? And can you hurry it up or at least come up with some more effective meds?
So there’s a real problem with assuming that ableism is one unified thing, just as there’s a problem with assuming that any disabled person can speak for all people. There’s a problem with assuming that crazy should be treated like blind or lame just because each is a term used to describe a disability, which is an assumption I see in an awful lot of writing about how to handle ableism in language.
And that makes me think, as just one person who has done a lot of reading — seriously, you guys, disability theory is useful as shit, go learn about the curb cut effect or the social model of disability while you’re here if you don’t already know, and why aren’t those as widely shared as ableist language? — that makes me think that the utility of monitoring our word choices to excise references to disability that might or might not be metaphorical or pejorative might be somewhat overstated.
In the aggregate, I mean. When anyone asks me to change a particular word around them, for trauma or for pain or even for sheer discomfort, I do it without blinking, and I do my best. That’s a request with clearly defined boundaries, one that won’t grow indefinitely and demand ever more complex convoluted flourishes, and it comes with a definite benefit for a particular person — not an expected benefit for a disabled person who might or might not give a shit about the effort I am putting in.
I suppose the takeaway I have is this:
Asking me to monitor my word choice for potentially problematic words and phrases, particularly potentially problematic words and phrases with fuzzy boundaries and disagreement on what counts… is asking a disabled person to take on a cost that directly taxes my limitations, with no clear and immediate benefit.
I’m willing to do it. But I’m not willing to hurt one real disabled person, in an ongoing way, for the sake of a theoretical disabled person. This is my request for accommodation, coming in: I need to have a limited number of constraints and nudges on my communication, or there will be no communication because I will be an anxious wreck bouncing feverishly from imagined harmed consequence to consequence regardless of the likelihood of anyone taking any personal offense at all.
That’s my boundary about my speech. If that hurts you, fuck, I am so sorry. If I had the resources to purge my words of anything that could cause you harm, I would. It’s worth doing. If you’re doing it already and you’re not having trouble — if it’s easy for you — you do you. After all, that’s the biggest positive thing I’ve taken away from disability theory:
To each according to his own abilities. To each according to her own need. And we should try to balance these as best we can, to minimize harm and maximize comfort and inclusivity. I will continue to help my students and the people in my life as much as I can, but helping to maintain access and welcome for disabled people in my everyday life doesn’t only include making welcome for others.
I qualify, too.
*(It’s probably telling that I am dissatisfied with this metaphor and keep poking it because it is perfectly accurate neither to computer software nor to the human brain. But it is reasonably intuitive, so please roll along with me anyway.)