Consider this extraordinary true incident recounted to me by the father of an adult son with severe Autism. One evening his son unexpectedly “snapped,” flooded by hormones and compulsivity, he began assaulting his parents uncontrollably. Panicked, the father placed the following 911 call: “I have a domestic emergency. My adult son is attacking me, and I need immediate help to restrain him. He has autism and is mentally retarded so do not draw your weapons!” Message received, the police response was swift and informed, and the young man was safely subdued and treated.
Now imagine a twist on that urgent 911 call: “This is an emergency, I’m being attacked by my son. Do not draw your weapons he is ‘differently abled.’” Doesn’t quite work, does it?
“Differently abled,” a recent scrubbing of the apparently now disfavored term, “disabled,” seeks to level the playing field by adopting a phrase which suggests that all abilities are merely matters of degree. In doing so it literally erases the disabled and with them, crucial differences that distinguish them from their non-disabled peers. As the proud parent of a profoundly impacted son with Autism, Zack, my dislike for this indiscriminate term is both pragmatic and deeply personal.
- It’s pragmatically useless.
The young man in crisis above is autistic, but not mentally retarded. When I asked his father why he used the additional label, his answer was unadorned: “I needed to use language everyone understands.” So, in moments of crisis, where intervention is informed by the child’s impairment, it’s crucial that language reflect common understanding to avoid catastrophe. Put another way, in exigent circumstances, political correctness must yield to definitional precision.
Indeed, the reason we have diagnostic labels in the first place is to identify a constellation of symptoms which present in such patterns that the medical community concurs that they define a disorder. Thus, the defining traits of Cerebral Palsy differ from those of Down’s Syndrome, which differ from Rett Syndrome. These differences matter; they pinpoint, in medically relevant terms, which disorders involve physical limitations that might require structural adaptations, physical supports, even surgery. They specify which cognitive impairments might require strict behavioral intervention, medications and even professional restraint.
“Differently abled” explains nothing. I am differently abled than my husband, my neurotypical daughter is differently abled than her friends, everyone on the planet is differently abled in some capacity – which I get is the point. It’s also the problem. Not everything exists on a continuum, some life experiences are so serious and life-altering they deserve to be categorically distinct.
- It avoids individualized assessment.
Take the milestone of filling out a job application for Zack. Autism is not tantamount to disqualification from all jobs, but it does disqualify him from many. To pretend otherwise is a cruel game that sets him up for failure since there are whole categories of jobs he simply cannot do. On his job application, am I to identify Zack as “differently abled,” avoid the “A” word, leaving employers to wonder why Zack is unable to decipher social cues, fixates on objects and is a literal thinker?
Try this instead: Zack is autistic, he doesn’t get nuanced language or social cues and has limited verbal language. But he can follow concrete directions, has extreme visual attention to detail, an unusually strong physique and hand-eye coordination, and kick-ass strength that allows him to move objects under which others might get crushed. Now let’s talk about how my autistic son can be of best use.
- It’s fighting the wrong fight.
It’s hard to speak with a united voice when the vocabulary keeps changing, and it’s even harder to be understood. Political correctness is an ever-moving target – in my own lifetime, the terms used to address persons with disabilities have changed radically over the years; terms that were once considered descriptive are now offensive. But language is not our triage issue; function and participation in society are. As advocates we must not get distracted from real fights about jobs and fair pay by allowing them to become comingled with petty disputes about semantics. Our energy must focus on securing vocational schools, fair housing, accessible transit and recreation for our disabled children while still calling them what they are.
- It’s regressive, not revolutionary.
We are in the midst of a revolution – a social exfoliation of sloughing off crusty, stale notions of what it means to be authentically yourself and still belong. Far from avoiding disabilities, TV shows such as “Speechless,” “The Good Doctor” and “Atypical” shout them from the rooftops, as well they should. Amidst this collective shedding of pretense, “differently abled” does not proudly flaunt our children as themselves, but masks those unique traits society is just now finally beginning to honor and embrace – why would we do that?
Zack is socially vulnerable, cognitively impaired and uncommonly trusting. And here’s the revolutionary part – it’s fine. Zack can yelp and flap and bounce and miss social cues and still perform in society.
- It’s shame, repackaged.
It’s impossible for me to view “differently abled” as equal rather than implying inferiority about Zack. When we shy away from diagnostic labels and allow our children’s disorders to be melted into the indistinct pot of “differently abled” it is a form of shame repacked. A diluting of the truth of who they are in order to shape them into a more socially acceptable category – one that dare not reveal impairments or deficits. True confidence lies in the call by the disabled to “boldly go where everyone has gone before.” Now it’s a limp plea for acceptance which begs, “we’re not really so different from the rest of you…please?”
“Differently abled” erases Zack’s history, all that he has accomplished and overcome thus far. To pretend we all function on a socially contiguous spectrum, separated only by shades of relative ability, is to deny the enormous challenges posed for people like Zack to perform even most rudimentary tasks like boarding a bus, feeding oneself or sitting quietly without flapping. “Differently abled” is insulting to Zack who – if he had sufficient language – would be happy to list all the ways he struggles to perform daily tasks the rest of us take for granted. So, we are all clear, Zack is autistic, and he’s good at it.
As we continue to police language, we must be careful what we are saying about our disabled children, both to them and about them to society. I believe the nebulizing of disabilities is due in part to an earnest effort to spare our disabled children ridicule. But the type of people inclined to hurl slurs at Zack will do so regardless of how we “repackage” his disability. My pride in him, my understanding of who he is, is so clear-eyed that I simply do not care. This is a healthy attitude we would all do well to cultivate for ourselves and for our children irrespective of abilities. Slurs that ridicule the disabled for their inherent traits are genuinely searing, but to react by diluting their identities is to play their game on their terms, rather than our own. We must not allow that. I will not cower to the slur, but nor will I curtsey to the norm. After all, a rose by any other name is still… autistic.