Why Language Matters….Bound and Determined to End the Media’s Archaic Stereotypes
The only thing were bound by is archaic stereotypes about disability.
It was Maysoon Zayid, one of my generation’s greatest voices on equality for the disability community, who came up with the hashtag #FreeChuckClose. It was in response to Linda Yablonsky’s writing that artist Chuck Close has been “bound to a wheelchair since 1988”. Out came the battlecry of the crip community, as we were all “bound and determined” to find out how such archaic language could be used in 2014.
I have spent my whole life hearing “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” and “people can only hurt you with their words if you let them”. While I believe, on some levels, this is true, words can do more than hurt. They can oppress, mock, prosthelytize and dehumanize entire groups of people. While words are not physically able to hurt us, they can ensure that stereotypes continue to be maintained within our societal structure.
Why does the phrase “bound to a wheelchair” have such an effect on a community of crips, who are used to fighting this battle of outdated ideas and language about us? It implies helplessness, weakness, dependency on a wheelchair we simple cannot get out of. It goes against the entire purpose of a wheelchair. So many people find the idea of ending up in a wheelchair confining. For many of us, who use a wheelchair to get around, the exact opposite is true. Using my wheelchair is empowering. It is freeing. It provides independence I wouldn’t otherwise have!
I’m not bound to my wheelchair. I gladly rejoice in getting into it and cruising around at speeds that go faster than my able-bodied cronies. I love to feel the wind whip through my hair and the gentle breeze glide across my cheek, as I roll through the world. Thanks to my wheelchair, the world is my oyster, and I seize every moment and opportunity find the pearl within it.
My wheelchair is freeing, not oppressive, so why should words matter?
The media is responsible for explaining things to the people within a society that they do not understand. Those who do not know people with disabilities make assumptions based on the media. Those of us in wheelchairs are scary and/or pitiful because we are bound to our wheelchairs. I believe it was Jerry Lewis who wrote we were trapped in the steel imprisonment of our chairs. We were half-persons hoping so desperately to be made whole and escape our steel entrapment.
The truth is, many of us are made whole by our ability to lead independent and productive lives. Wheelchairs give us independence. Having a disability does not make us less than. I find my disability actually makes me a more well-rounded, compassionate person. Sure, I wish it was easier to do certain things, but if not having a disability changed my personality I wouldn’t want to change. I am a better person because of my disability.
People first language is so important because it makes clear the group being spoken about is comprised of human beings. We can relate to our humanity. From that comes understanding and even compassion. Archaic and oppressive words can lead to misunderstanding and ignorance. We do not want to use those words. They only seek to divide us and keep us from being seen as human beings or normal parts of society.
We need to hold those in the media who continue to perpetuate stereotypes of dependence, neediness, lack of ability and that invoke pity responsible for the harm they are doing to the disability community. That is why I am BOUND in my quest to make Ms. Yablonsky see that her words have repercussions for us in the disability community. We want her to think before she types. She should empower with her words, not denigrate. With the ability to reach a large audience comes great responsibility. Ms. Yablonsky and other journos need to use their responsibility wisely.
Otherwise, she and other journos like her MUST face the outcry of us gimps looking to free poor Chuck from the confines of that wheelchair he’s been “bound” to for over 20 years! And let’s be honest. That’s one riot no one wants to have to face!