"Hi Dan, the message on my voicemail began. "This is Beth Sutter... I really appreciate your article, your commentary, 'Philadelphia is a rough ride for wheelchair users.' I thought you were very intentional in using the word 'wheelchair user' as opposed to 'wheelchair-bound' or someone being 'in the wheelchair.' "
How did I know a but was to follow?
"I wondered if you would also consider being intentional about avoiding phrases like 'the disabled' or 'the handicapped.' I have the same response to the words 'the homeless.' Just because I find those words distancing. As if the person is 'other.' "
I called her back. Yes, I said, I was deliberate in saying "uses a wheelchair." This is because I used to live in Louisville, and back in the '80s a very feisty magazine was published there. They called it The Disability Rag.
And rag they could.
I will never forget the note I got from a woman there when I thoughtlessly wrote someone was "confined to a wheelchair." That turned out to be one of the Disability Rag editors' least favorite phrases.
Confined? As if the wheelchair is a prison?
I got the point. But I never thought that saying something about the disabled is not as good as saying something about disabled people. In fact, apparently I did it twice in Monday's column. Now that I think of it, it's a fair point.
Sutter and I talked for a few minutes. Turns out she's second cousin to Bruce Sutter, who I used to watch pitch at Wrigley Field in the late '70s during the reign of the Grubby Cubbies.
She is 52, and has been a disabled person since 1991. Her spinal stenosis makes it extremely painful to sit. "It means I cannot use a wheelchair. I use critches. I've pretty much been in bed since June."
She was an occupational therapist. "I miss it a lot," she said.
I'll think of her next time I try to make a noun out of an adjective.