Do We Really Need to Label People?

Published On Sat Jun 12 2010
by Helen Henderson
Disabilities Reporter


Without a doubt, the I-word is the hands-down winner among terms offensive to Star readers when used in reference to people with disabilities. It’s also,
indubitably one of the most contentious and ubiquitous phrases in everything from media reports to human rights legislation.

My recent request for comments on the way newspapers and other media refer to disabilities brought an onslaught of opinions and many useful suggestions
for alternatives. But one word stood out.

“ ‘Impaired’ connotes being defective or broken. Who wants that?” wrote Kathryn Woodcock.

“Impaired” also implies that the individual is responsible when the real defect lies in a society that doesn’t understand the richness of diversity, others
pointed out.

Then there’s that immoral connotation, as in “impaired driving.” (Most dictionaries juxtapose defect, disability and drunkenness.)

Among other things, Merriam-Webster defines “impaired” as “being in a less than perfect or whole condition: as disabled or functionally defective — often
used in combination (hearing-impaired).”

Needless to say, Woodcock, an engineer who happens to be deaf, is particularly vigilant when it comes to this reference. “Preferred terms for those who
have some hearing ability include ‘people with hearing loss’ and ‘people who are hard of hearing,’” she notes.

Similarly, “impaired” is not in the lexicon of CNIB. It refers instead to “vision loss.”

But things become more complex when you get into so-called “official” definitions from entities such as the World Health Organization.

Disability is an umbrella term, “covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions,” the organization notes. It defines “impairment”
as “a problem in body function or structure.”

Ultimately, it emphasizes, “disability is a complex phenomenon, reflecting an interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society
in which he or she lives.”

In this province, “impaired” does not occur in relation to the definitions of physical or learning disabilities, according to the Ontario Human Rights Code
and the Accessibility for Ontarians With Disabilities Act (AODA). But these two pieces of legislation do define “a condition of mental impairment.”

Beyond the I-word, Star readers had a number of criticisms of the media’s terminology and its influence on society’s attitudes.

“Labelling dis-anything is not inclusive,” argues Linda Patience Ball. Why not just refer to, say, someone “who is blind,” she suggests — that is, “if we
have to label at all.”

Referring to my question about the type of things readers would like to know about living with a disability, Cathy Wright wrote: “I always want to know
a person’s story, how they came to be where they are. But whether the person is in a wheelchair or not, I don’t want to ask for information that is none
of my business.”

By contrast, she finds that far from avoiding conversations about disabilities for fear they may say the wrong thing, some people are “overly comfortable
asking questions or raising issues that would never be acceptable if disability were not part of the equation.”

In particular, she says strangers will talk to parents as if a child with a disability were not present, asking inappropriate questions, such as: “Have
you ever thought of placing her in an institution?”

Apart from the I-word, one of the most common criticisms of the media related to phrases that use physical disabilities as representations of reprehensible attitudes.

Why does society use expressions such as “turned a blind eye” or “fell on deaf ears” to mean negligence, stubbornness or intransigence? readers asked.

Why indeed?

Helen Henderson is a freelance writer and disability studies student at Ryerson University. Her column appears Saturdays.

Reproduced from–do-we-really-need-to-label-people#article