Dis-ing Definitions

Dr. Steven E. Brown, Co-Founder of the Institute on Disability Culture, in the United States, attempted to reframe how people think the language and status of disability. First published in Mainstream: Magazine of The Able-Disabled, August 1997. Internet publication URL: www.independentliving.org/docs3/brown97b.html.

Language can be a bane of human rights movements. What do we call ourselves? What do others call us? Do labels intersect with models of freedom? Can descriptions of who we are liberate us from yolks of oppression? Do we automatically imprison ourselves as soon as we turn to classifications?

For many years I have been writing, talking, and thinking about language. Like my colleagues across the world in the disability rights movement I have described myself as an individual with a disability, using the preferred term "disability" for a myriad of conditions in combination with "people first" language where the condition of "disability" is an adjective describing one aspect of a person.

Lately, I have become quite dissatisfied with this description of myself, my peers, and those outside of these conditions, whom I've labeled "nondisabled." Troubling doubts insinuate themselves into my heretofore solid foundation of where I fit into a disability rights movement. I am not alone.

In almost every audience there is someone who says something like, "we all have disabilities." My response to this statement has been that, like most generalizations, it is so broad it is meaningless. When one is immersed in a political struggle to establish certain rights as fundamental to existence, then a group must clearly identify itself as "other" or "outsider" from the dominant mainstream, or "insider," group. Those who fill (maybe even overflow) social margins can then be rendered less "outsider" by attaining concrete achievements, such as new laws, better educational outcomes, higher employment levels, or (since this is about disabilities) curb cuts or interpreter services, thus acquiring "insider" status.

All of a sudden, though not sudden at all, every aspect of the above paragraph gives me a paradigmache. Is "insider" status truly the goal?

Looking at language and "insider" status, I propose to enlist a commonly used dictionary to provide typical definitions about disability.* Using the following words and how they are portrayed may lead us (or at least me) to a new way of looking at the issue, condition, status, and way of life called "disability:"

Disabled: "incapacitated by illness, injury, or wounds; broadly: physically or mentally impaired."

Impaired: "being in a less than perfect or whole condition: as a: handicapped or functionally defective..."

Handicapped: "having a physical or mental disability that substantially limits activity, esp in relation to employment or education"

Defective: "imperfect in form or function"

Sickness: "ill health"

Health: "the condition of being sound in body, mind, and spirit; esp: freedom from physical disease or pain"

Illness: "an unhealthy condition of body or mind"

Freedom: "the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action"

Oppression: "an unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power"

Cure: "to restore to health, soundness, or normality"

Normality: Undefined

Using the preceding definitions, everyone does indeed have a disability if it is defined as an "impairment," that is, being less than perfect. Until recently, I would simply have thought that is too broad an interpretation to be useful and dismissed it. But what if I embrace the concept of universal disability rather than sweeping it away?

The most immediate result is that a (possibly) artificial distinction between two groups of people--"disabled" and "nondisabled" is eliminated. This obliteration also wipes out several continuums of "insider/outsider" statuses. Depending on one's point of view and identification, "insider" and "outsider" roles may change meanings from one person to the next and even in the same person over time. But "insider/outsider" roles about disability can only continue to be developed as long as we perceive certain individuals to have disabilities.

When we persist in these "outsider/insider" identifications we don't merely play into the definitions of our oppressors, we thrust ourselves into those definitions so eagerly that we, as much as our oppressors, perpetuate the myths of (dis)abilities. We fall into a seductive trap of utilizing the dominant paradigms to control the way we think about ourselves.

I believe that each of us involved in a rights movement has the same goal: to be treated as equally as the most privileged member of society. We easily obtain proof that equality does not exist , the most obvious demonstrations generally being educational, employment, and political status. We are also treated differently before the law. In United States history, people who have not owned property, or been white men, or physically able to get into a voting booth, or able to read the language of a ballot, among other groups, have all been legally disenfranchised.

Knowing that we are being treated differently before the law, we work to attain a kind of equilibrium between those who are and who are not privileged. We accomplish this by changing the law so that people who do not own property, are not white men, are unable to get into a voting booth, or read a ballot, among other groups, all becoming legally enfranchised. We work to change the social structure so that educational, employment, and political status become reformed in such a way that our group becomes a part of the privileged.

While we strive to become "insiders," part of the social mainstream, or the "privileged," we, like many have-nots, are snared in a web of hegemony, wanting and working to become in some way like our oppressors--dominant over (or more privileged than) some other group--so that we see and feel and partake in a concrete shift moving from "outsider" to "insider" status. In the struggle we sometimes forget that original goal of all rights movements to be treated equally with the most privileged members of society should also be applied to everyone, not only our particular group.

There are those reading these words who will have a problem with the use of the terms "oppression and oppressors." But, according to the dictionary definition those who unjustly use authority and power are oppressors. When difference is used, as it routinely has been, to transform groups of people into "outsiders" and then submerge and suppress these groups educationally, economically, socially, and politically, then "insiders" have indeed become oppressors.

"Outsiders" become people who escape fitting neatly into the mainstream's definitions of normality--which according to the same dictionary, don't exist! This circuitous path of analyzing definitions of disability leads to the (il)logical(?) conclusion that no one is "normal," therefore everyone is! The logic becomes convoluted because the definitions both depend, and turn, on themselves. We are unable to be clear about these words and concepts because they are so extremely artificial, that is, made up.

This, too, is not earth-shattering. We all make up ways to describe ourselves, that's what language is, a way to communicate. But who makes the language? "Insiders." Those of us who fall away from whatever happens to be a typical definition of "normality," become "outsiders." It does not matter that "normality" is undefined, because "insiders" believe themselves to possess the knowledge of what it is. Undefined it is much easier to maintain "insider" status by changing it when it is convenient.

To use the example of voting once more, "insiders" have changed throughout the course of United States history from white, male property-owners to non-property owners, women, and many more people. But enfranchisement is not completely inclusive. Many groups remain disenfranchised, perhaps the most obvious being those individuals under a certain chronological age. But those of us who do vote have frequently changed from "outsider" to "insider." As "insider" status regarding voting has changed, so has the concept of "normality" in the polling booth.

This web of intricate patterns, circles, and snares is a trap because the people controlling the web are "insiders" and, short of revolution, only they have the power to change it. What power, then, do we as "outsiders" possess?

We hold the power to change the environment, not be caught in the web, not be seduced by becoming "insiders" ourselves. We have the power to change our own pursuit of freedom to become equal with, not with our oppressors, but everyone. I have an old button with the slogan, "No one is free when others are oppressed." If I, or my group, become so successful in our rights quest that we become "insiders," then someone else remains oppressed. In this scenario, we unfortunately also become part of the system, most frequently by joining its workforce (known in the 1960s as being co-opted) or becoming so attached to the material possessions and security of the mainstream that we struggle to be a part of its flow, no matter how disinclined we may believe we are to actually fit into the status quo.

This is not my life path. How can I change my life, my work, my struggle, so that I no longer perceive becoming an "insider" as the ultimate goal?

The myths of (dis)abilities (and other "outsider" groups) are perpetuated because of a willingness by both "outsider" and "insider" groups to assimilate the standard definitions of terms and their concomitant oppressive results. Shatter the definitions, alter the myths, destroy the "outsider"/"insider" dichotomy and what remains?

Few of us know, because we ("outsiders" and "insiders," ironically, together) have been so successfully seduced into the mainstream that we linger, and even wallow, in the paradigms of our oppressors. The current worldview that defines the concept of "disability" fits into the "insider/outsider" paradigms.

Reaching these conclusions have been most difficult, but now comes the truly hard part: I know that I am no longer willing to be categorized as an "outsider" because I am no longer interested in becoming an "insider."

What do I become? That remains to be seen. I don't have an answer.

Until recently, I also did not have the question. Until setting these thoughts down, the answer was unknowable because the query was unthinkable.

Future thoughts and writings must incorporate responses to these newly- established opportunities. I look forward to the possibilities.

*Definitions taken from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary: Tenth Edition (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc., 1996).