INT 902 Lecture Notes - Lecture 1: Macmillan Publishers, Disability Rights Movement, Disability Studies

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CINT902 Summaries
Disability: A Rose by Any Other Name? People-First language in Canadian Society, Tanya Titchkosky
People-first language is best understood as part of an ongoing process that removes the
possibility of understanding disability as a social, and thereby complex, political phenomenon.
“How we are seen determines in part how we are treated; how we treat others is based on how
we see them; such seeing comes from representation.”
“People with disabilities” is the dominant linguistic formulation of disability in Canada and
deserves sociological consideration: this phrase has been in circulation since the 1970’s, and was
consolidated in 1983 with the International Year of the Disabled.
This lexicon recommends that disability should be spoken of as something that comes along
with people. People-first phraseology conceives disability as a troublesome condition arbitrarily
attached to some people, a condition that is only significant as a remedial or managerial issue.
The assumption that people-first phraseology is devoid of objectification subverts the possibility
of a critical analysis of this unified discursive formulation of disability.
Unified discursive representations are best understood as the social organization of ruling
relations, and ought to be studied as such.
In Unison: A Canadian Approach to Disability Issues claims to represent the status and desires of
disabled people in Canada and does so through a people-first language.
“People with disabilities” are first and foremost reportable: people who can be counted by
measuring and surveying levels of impairment. Such counting requires that disability be
conceptualized as a measurable condition- as a possessing level.
People-first language supports accounting procedures where one can be counted as a “person
with a disability” without having any self-understanding as such. Thus, “people with disabilities”
are made persons first, i.e., persons who happen to have a measurable condition of limitation or
lack, which is regarded as having nothing to do with the person. At the same time, disability is
regarded as abnormal limitations which are “attached” to over 4 million Canadians.
The enterprise of Othering (with ‘they’ language, people-first language) ensures some clear and
certain image of bodily limitation or sensorial lack is re-inscribed only on “them”. Thus, the
mythical dichotomy between the pathological and normal is reinforced.
Disability is “disturbing to our expectations of order, normality, and convention… and an
anomaly demands a response”. Thus we see people-first language as a response.
Defining differences as noteworthy only in relation to lack and limitation leads to a form of
diversity defined in relation to type, kind, and consequence of these various lacks and
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Separating the person from his or her disability is the aim of people-first language, an aim that
does not acknowledge that the social consequence is the alienation of persons from a political
understanding of disability.
People-first language makes the claim that a resemblance of normalacy can be achieved if all
people and institutions continually emphasize that disabled people are indeed people.
The In Unison document depicts all citizens with disabilities as having the same wants, needs
and hardships- and thus sharing the same singular conception of disability.
This depiction suggests that all citizens with disabilities share this common conception of
disability as 1) unquestionable, 2) located in individuals whose bodies, minds, or senses have
“gone wrong”, which 3) leaves some version of a unified, disembodied personhood intact,
undisturbed, and in conformity with all other disabled peoples.
Disability is conceived as treated as an individual trouble and not a public issue: People-first
language 1) separates the person from the disability and 2) circumscribes disability as something
(bad) that is only understood in relation to its attached individuals.
To medicalize disability is to treat disabled people as the embodiment of limitation and lack-
“they” are the possessors of conditions measured against conceptions of “the normal”. This
language can best be understood as a form of social organization which attempts to make
absent any possibility of transgression that could lead to a socio-political understanding of
disability. The concept of disability has nonetheless remained the same since the formal
transition to people-first language, though a little distance has been enforced between it and its
The point is not to “say it this way”, but it is to examine what our current articulations of
disability are saying in the here and now.
An analysis of disability discourse can help disabled people and non-disabled people ‘get in
touch with’ the manner and form of constituting the meaning of people.
Thus, people-first language is understood as one of the dominant ways to maintain clear, certain
and manageable boundaries around bodies, minds, and senses while denying disability any
positive actuality.
Simi Linton, “Reassigning Meaning,” Disability History Museum,
The medicalization of disability casts human variation as deviance from the norm, as
pathological condition, as deficit, and, significantly, as an individual burden and personal
tragedy. Society, in agreeing to assign medical meaning to disability, colludes to keep the issue
within the purview of the medical establishment, to keep it a personal matter and "treat" the
condition and the person with the condition rather than "treating" the social processes and
policies that constrict disabled people's lives. The disability studies' and disability rights
movement's position is critical of the domination of the medical definition and views it as a
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major stumbling block to the reinterpretation of disability as a political category and to the
social changes that could follow such a shift.
While retaining the term disability, despite its medical origins, a premise of most of the
literature in disability studies is that disability is best understood as a marker of identity.
The term special may be evidence not of a deliberate maneuver but of a collective "reaction
formation," Freud's term for the unconscious defense mechanism in which an individual adopts
attitudes and behaviors that are opposite to his or her own true feelings, in order to protect the
ego from the anxiety felt from experiencing the real feelings.
Cripple, gimp, and freak as used by the disability community have transgressive potential. They
are personally and politically useful as a means to comment on oppression because they assert
our right to name experience.
Towards interdependency
Our communities and movements must address the issue of access; accessibility is concrete
resistance to the isolation of disabled people. We can work to understand access in a broad way,
encompassing class, language, childcare, gender-neutral bathrooms as a start.
We must, however, move beyond access by itself. We cannot allow the liberation of disabled
people to be boiled down to logistics. We must understand and practice an accessibility that
moves us closer to justice, not just inclusion or diversity.
As organizers, we need to think of access with an understanding of disability justice, moving
away from an equality-based model of sameness and “we are just like you” to a model of
disability that embraces difference, confronts privilege and challenges what is considered
“normal” on every front. We don’t want to simply join the ranks of the privileged; we want to
dismantle those ranks and the systems that maintain them.
In no way am I saying that accessibility is not important—it most definitely is. We cannot have
disability justice without it, but we want to question a culture that makes inaccessibility even
possible. Just because disabled people are in the room doesn’t mean there is no ableism (a set
of beliefs that favors non-disabled people) or that people won’t pretend we’re invisible.
With disability justice, we want to move away from the “myth of independence,” that everyone
can and should be able to do everything on their own. I am not fighting for independence, as
much of the disability rights movement rallies behind. I am fighting for an interdependence that
embraces need and tells the truth: no one does it on their own and the myth of independence is
just that, a myth.
Disability justice has the power to bring our bodies back into our conversations. What do we do
with bodies that have limitations, that are different (no matter how much we want to change
them)? How do we acknowledge that all bodies are different, while also not ignoring the very
real ways that certain bodies are labeled and treated as “disabled?”
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