“Disabled.” Think about the image that this word invokes. For a moment, picture in your mind a “disabled” person. What does he look like? How does she get around from place to place? How would you describe his cognitive function? What, if anything, does she do for a living? If he does work, what are some of the efforts his employer has to make to ensure that he doesn’t have any trouble performing his job? What might her coworkers do to make her feel included? Are there any special accommodations that the people in his life need to make? Is she dependent on any particular tool, technology, or implement to help her manage her daily life, both at work and at home?
Enough questions. Now it’s time to examine the picture in your mind. If you’re like most people, when you pictured a “disabled” person, your focus was on how he/she was “impaired”—all those things about him/her that made him/her different from you, a person who may or may not have any “special” needs or face any particular “challenges” in life. You likely pictured this person as reliant upon an assistance device or requiring implements that make him/her function in isolation from the rest of the “normal” group. If the picture in your mind is similar to the picture in most people’s minds when asked to visualize a “disabled” person, you surely imagined this person living in a world quite different (and often separate) from your own.
This is a huge part of why it’s so frustrating that the word “disabled” gets applied to the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (or to anyone, for that matter). Words like “disabled,” and “impaired,” and “special,” represent the efforts of the so-called “abled” community to label people with abilities that differ from their own. These words are all born of good intentions, but they, wittingly or unwittingly, create a framework of understanding that winds up covering giant subsets of people and categorizing them in the same way. Words like “accessibility,” “inclusion,” and “accommodation,” build around this framework to shape an understanding of how one world—the “abled” world—seeks to make concessions for the other, “disabled” world. Words like “adaptive technology,” “assistance device,” and “dependence” spring from this framework to explain how a “disabled” person manages to “get by” in the “abled” world. Further efforts to “accommodate” these “differently abled” people extend to benevolent-seeming adjectives like “special” and “challenged,” words that sound far more condescending than intended when viewed from the other side.
In his brilliant book Don’t Think of An Elephant, George Lakoff makes an unparalleled case for how to frame debate and political messaging, but his outlining of the concepts of mental frames applies perfectly to the situation I highlight above. Lakoff writes that, “Frames are mental structures. As a result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions.” In other words, the frames we accept are the windows through which we see the world. The words we use create the impressions that shape the reality in our minds.
This is precisely the problem with the word “disabled.” It creates a framework of understanding that leads most people to believe that we live in two separate worlds: one world for those without “disabilities” and another world for those with them. This division into two separate worlds makes it next to impossible for some people to work and associate unfettered with certain other people, even if those certain other people are perfectly capable of performing all the same professional and social functions.
For too long, because most people view them as “disabled,” Deaf and Hard of Hearing people have faced this stigma. Some employers, for example, view them as an “economic burden,” people for whom certain (presumably expensive) “accommodations” must be made in order to allow them to work and interact on the same level as their Hearing counterparts. This is frequently cited as the reason that a staggering 70% of Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals in the United States are unemployed or underemployed. Organizations simply don’t want to hire them when it’s so much “simpler” to hire “abled” people.
The viewpoint that Deaf/Hard of Hearing people are “unable to hear and speak” has established a premise that the only human beings worthy of investment are those who possess the combined “abilities” to communicate in an auditory fashion. The notion is that Deaf/Hard of Hearing people can’t acquire language, which makes them illiterate or less intelligent than their Hearing counterparts. Some assume that a Deaf/Hard of Hearing person is incapable of working with customers or providing the highest quality service. Others assume that communicating in sign language is a barrier to managing a team, meaning that promotions for the Deaf/Hard of Hearing are essentially out of the question. Sign language itself is often viewed as a crutch, rather than the bona fide language complete with the same level of grammar, syntax, and body language that makes any spoken communication such an effective tool. But the most harrowing assumption that arises from this framework is that Deafness is something that makes a person less than a fully functional human, a flaw that needs to be corrected or even genetically engineered out of the species.
In this way, and many others, the framework of “disability” is ineffective, exclusionary, and socially destructive. It unfairly disadvantages a massive, skilled, and largely available workforce. It’s a huge problem, both for the Deaf/Hard of Hearing community and for the organizations that look past them. But it is a huge problem with a clear solution. It just requires each one of us to think differently—to change the paradigm.
So how do we change the paradigm? How do we reconstruct the framework so that the word “disabled,” at least in this context, disappears from the lexicon? As Lakoff rightly argues, the only way to reshape how we think about this two-world framework is to think differently. And the only way to think differently is to speak differently. Words like “accessibility,” “inclusion,” and “accommodation” become “self-assertion,” “initiative,” and “self-determination.” “Adaptive technology” reframes to “engineer technology.” “Dependence” shifts to “contribution.” “Impairment” refocuses toward “natural ability.” “Special” makes way for “inherent power.” “Challenge” is made “manifest.” The divide between the “Hearing World” and the “Deaf World” becomes “One World.”
At first glance, these might seem like incremental changes—mere matters of semantics—but they make a world of difference because they reframe the understanding away from “disability” and toward “alternate ability.” Coming to this understanding creates an opportunity for all of us to rethink our current reality and imagine a world that isn’t more “inclusive,” but a world that is genuinely “one,” a world that is truly the same for everyone, no matter who they are or how they communicate, a world that operates on the notion that all people can and should have equal access to the sharing of ideas. In this world, “disabled” doesn’t exist. In this world, everyone is an equal player. What would our reality look like then?
This article was inspired by a close colleague and friend, Ryan Commerson who works for CSD as a Media Communication Strategist.