Terminology and Definitions

By: A.C.

Do any of you remember the Monty Python Film, “Life of Brian”? A sketch which showed Brian attending a secret political meeting, and the various characters are arguing about their freedom fighters group title? “Excuse me. Are you the Judean People’s Front?” “‘Judean People’s Front’ ? We’re The People’s Front of Judea!”. There then follows a disparaging expletive on Brian’s lack of knowledge as regards his proper title for the freedom fighters.

The political earnestness of the cabal was captured in this scene, where they argued more about words and titles, and showed how the application of words and language to a situation, no matter how lofty the ideals, distracted them from gaining supporters because of that ‘need to get it right’, instead of concentrating on the main subject on the agenda.

We have all grown up in different ages, and what seem like sensible non-provocative and useful descriptive words that do not insult or disrespect ‘disabled people’ are suddenly incorrect and new meanings and ideas are suddenly de rigeur.

Now, I have always had a problem with the use of the word disabled as regards grammar and meaning when it is used as prefix in front of toilets, parking spaces, lifts, Transport etc.

The Toilets are clearly not disabled, nor is the lift. Surely the sign would be “ Toilets for people with disabilities”. So we just have to accept that sign makers prefer to use fewer words for economic reasons, even though that annoys folk who grew up getting grammar belted into them by a child–hating dominie.

I came across a document teaching the “ Language of Respect” at an Equality Training website  recently. Equality Training is sometimes, I think, a bit like the Committee Meeting of The People’s Front of Judea. I read this document and tried to understand what it actually meant.

Disabled people use the term ‘impairment’ to talk about their medical condition or diagnosis or description of their functioning. On the other hand, ‘disability’ describes the social effects of impairment.

‘Disability’ is not a description of a personal characteristic. A disabled person is not a ‘person with a disability’as the person does not own the disability in the way that you might be ‘a person with brown hair’. Consequently, the opposite of ‘disabled’ is not ‘able-bodied’ or ‘abled’, but ‘non-disabled’ or ‘enabled’.

Understanding the critical difference between these two terms allows us to talk separately and clearly about:

• a named individual = the person
• impairment = their functioning
• disability = society’s barriers

e.g. Fred Brown (the person) is a man with cerebral palsy (the impairment). When the barriers and discrimination (the disabilities) that restrict Fred have been removed from society, Fred will no longer be disabled, but he will still have cerebral palsy and be called Fred.

If change is to happen, it is essential that we understand disability as an instrument of social oppression. We need to acknowledge that such oppression occurs and that disabled people are subject to the very real effects of other peoples’ attitudes and beliefs. Different cultures have different attitudes to the disabled people in their communities. Whether these attitudes are positive or negative, they will influence people’s expectations of a disabled individual.”

Fair enough. I think I get that rather lofty ideal and the ruler on the back of the hand in not being correct in most of Society’s description of what disability is according to these teachers. So, what is the actual current meaning these words as defined in the dictionary?

Chambers Dictionary : impair verb (impaired, impairing) to damage or weaken something, especially in terms of its quality or strength • His health is much impaired • visually-impaired. impairment noun.

Chambers Dictionary: disability noun (disabilities) 1 the state of being disabled. 2 a condition, such as a physical or mental handicap, that results in partial or complete loss of a person’s ability to perform social, occupational or other everyday activities. 3 law lack of legal power; disqualification

I understand why the Equality Training document wishes to empower people who are disabled, and refer to them as “ impaired”, and create a ‘Language of Respect’ , but when even a sign maker cannot get it correct and instead give the impression that the “Toilets are out of Order” and dictionaries are not changing then it seems like a paper exercise, though we do need to start somewhere.

There is a Language that speaks volumes for any person. It is the Language of the Heart. It can be seen in those selfless people who just give of themselves daily to charity work, to the care and welfare of others – and no words are needed to make that ‘right’.

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