“Why don’t you get a job?” she asked.
“Well my child is severely disabled and needs care.” I replied.
A simple reply changed the direction of the conversation. “You really shouldn’t call him disabled. He is special needs.” She informed me, as though it was possible for the mother of a five year old disabled child to never have heard the cosmetic term “special needs”. I’ve heard them all, I think – special needs, differently abled, physically challenged, learning delayed, developmentally delayed…. there is an endless list as feel-gooders go on an orgy of finding names that won’t hurt.
A post about “chinkies” – street term used for people with slanted eyes right from the Chinese and Japanese to Manipuris and Ladakhis – caused outrage. It may have spoken about hate attacks against them and apathy in the eyes of India, but hey, I should have used a better term.
The last straw (well one of them) was when the Delhi Gang Rape victim who died of her injuries was called a rape survivor – hello! She DIED!!! How does that make her a survivor? Well she reached hospital, so survived her rape, I guess. Perhaps we shouldn’t prosecute the rapists for murder along with the rape.
I have a problem with sterile descriptors – particularly ones that are inaccurate. A rape victim is NOT a survivor. “Survivor” implies that every rape is as good as death – which is the plain fucking patriarchal view, only recycled by feminists (yeah, our feminists often end up convenient to women owners). The other problem with survivor being used as a default description is of course the sad reality that sometimes they don’t survive. They die of injuries or commit suicide or get murdered for silencing or honor. The third problem of course is the sheer inaccuracy of it. Even if we were to understand “survival” as recovery from trauma (as opposed to risk of death), many victims remain traumatized and brutalized by their experiences and don’t begin recovery as urgently as mass media would prefer.
Similarly, calling disabled people who travel in compartments for handicapped people “special needs” is a cosmetic makeover that makes no difference to the reality. The same people suffering the same disadvantages travel in the same compartment. And if you tell me there exists a single child in the world whose needs are not special, perhaps you need to respect children more.
There are several things these cosmetic makeovers achieve. The first and biggest is that they give us the power to play God. Here is a problem, you rename it and the problem is gone. Its new name is not a problem.
The other thing is our own lazy insensitivity. If there is no problem, we don’t need to go out of our way to do anything for them, right? If she’s a survivor, triumphant and all, it doesn’t remind us that she may be fragile and need a lot more assistance than is apparent.
But, the hiding of devastating disadvantages can put help out of reach for those affected. Getting out of your seat for a cripple, handicapped, lame, blind person would be manners. For someone with special needs? Nah, sit. Just attention seeking. They need more than normal. But you are tired too.
I’d rather my child be known as a disabled child than people to think that he just has some special requirements – which someone (the state? – standard fallback) must be providing. Nothing to worry ourselves about in special needs. Besides, what do we know about providing special care?
It is a dehumanized, impersonal way that serves those without disadvantages by removing the obligation to assist the needy that is hardwired into any responsible mind. It is an attempt to sweep ugliness out of sight, even if that whitewash means more difficulties in receiving aid, because the need is rendered invisible.
We pretend that being unable to sit, stand, talk, walk – difficult challenges to overcome – aren’t the problem, but the problem is the label – which can be changed easily – that keeps the problems visible and hurting sensibilities.
Those who prefer such euphemisms claim that the dehumanized euphemisms empower the disadvantaged. “A rape victim keeps getting reminded of her trauma” are the actual words by an activist I raised this issue with. Well, a rape survivor also keeps getting reminded of her trauma. The issue isn’t with the word victim, but the rape itself – which will take as much time and healing as it does before it stops hurting. If we see the hurt, we can offer solidarity, compassion, our hurt in empathy.
The problem is not with words. Words are mere descriptors. A cripple or a victim or something else. That is the reality of what they go through. The hurt is in the suffering. In discrimination, in lack of respect. Until we learn to love and respect people and be compassionate, we will keep changing labels as older ones become symbolic of our insensitivity and we need newer, kinder ones that further pretend nothing is wrong.
Maybe if we tell ourselves enough, we can just label away all the problems in the world.
Here’s George Carlin on a similar subject.