The Disability Rag

Disability It's easier to take a hit when the person delivering it has such a gentle voice.

"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.

Posted 01/30/2008 07:58:12 AM

What would she have those of us that work in homeless services start calling the people we work with? "Differently housed?" How about, "specially domiciled?" I think when your primary barrier to productive living is a lack of housing, "homeless" is a perfectly adequate and quite accurate descriptor. Not to derail the hug fest, sorry.

daniel rubin
Posted 01/30/2008 08:07:50 AM

no, deeney. they are 'homeless' in that they have no homes. she's cool with that. she doesn't want to do away with the word. she just wants to to add a noun at the end, so the word describes but does not define them. so, 'homeless people' is what she's going for. hug it out.

Posted 01/30/2008 12:35:43 PM


Posted 01/30/2008 06:43:09 PM

critches? i hug critches.

daniel rubin
Posted 01/30/2008 06:47:57 PM

ouch - 'crutches.' you've got a real instinct for the capillary.

Posted 04/08/2009 05:46:52 AM

Well, in that case we should refer to the unborn as unborn people, otherwise we may start to think of them as "other" and feel free to abort them.

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