PC Conundrum – When Political Correctness Hinders the Disabled
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose,
By any other name would smell as sweet…
~ William Shakespeare
Consider this true incident recounted by the father of an adult son with severe Autism. One evening his son unexpectedly “snapped” – flooded by hormones and impulsivity – and began assaulting his parents uncontrollably. Panicked, the father placed the following 911 call: “I have an emergency. My son is attacking me and I need 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? To the contrary, it’s so confoundingly vague the caller must offer further clarification, fast ~ how is he “different”? What’s his exact problem? Therein lies the difficulty of political correctness gone awry, where the earnest attempt to secure equal treatment for the disabled obfuscates the truth of who they are and what they might need.
The young man 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.
When I wrote my unguarded account about my son, Autism Uncensored: Pulling Back the Curtain (April 2018), my goal was to speak truth about a difficult topic. “Differently abled,” a recent scrubbing of the now disfavored term, “disabled,” seems to do the opposite by implying that individual abilities are merely a matter of degree. Not everything exists on a continuum, and to pretend we all function on a socially contiguous spectrum is to deny the enormous challenges for people like my son, 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 do what the rest of us take for granted.
“Differently abled” is also pragmatically useless. Take the milestone of filling out a job application for Zack. Am I truly to identify Zack as “differently abled,” avoid the “A” word and leave employers to guess at his characteristic deficits? Zack’s autism is not tantamount to disqualification from all jobs, but it does disqualify him from many. To pretend otherwise is a cruel game which sets him up for failure since there are whole categories of jobs he simply cannot do. Try this instead. Zack is autistic, he’s unable to comprehend nuanced language or social cues, and he 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. Now let’s talk about how my autistic son can be of best use.
“Differently abled” literally erases the disabled under an anonymous blanket that masks traits society now finally seeks to honor and embrace. Employers now actively seek autistic employees for tasks that require sequencing, obsessive attention to detail and scrupulous work ethic – hence news of one group of autistic adults who are charged with cleaning, separating and lining up surgical tools for pre-op. The recent surge of t.v. and movie characters such as “Speechless,” “The Good Doctor” and “Atypical” don’t dance around their characters’ disabilities but rather shout them from the rooftops. Against this social exfoliation, the term “differently abled” feels regressive, not revolutionary. Zack has a cognitive disorder which makes him compliant, comfortable taking directions, incapable of subterfuge. Here’s the revolutionary part –it’s fine. Zack can miss social cues and still get trained up to do a job that integrates him into society as a contributing member.
Try as a might, I can’t help but view “differently abled” as overcompensating for slurs against the disabled. When we shy away from diagnoses and allow our children’s disorders to be nebulized 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 limits. 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?” 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.
So we are all clear, Zack is autistic, and he’s good at it. My understanding of who he is, his understanding of who he is, is so clear-eyed we don’t feel the need to hide. This is a healthy attitude we would all do well to cultivate for ourselves and for our children irrespective of their nascent 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 others’ terms rather than our own. We must not allow that. I will not cower to the slur, but nor will I desperately seek to assimilate with the norm. After all, a rose by any other name is still…autistic.
I agree with most points of your piece, and how certain terms are used can matter as much as which terms are used, but I do think it would be valuable if responders were specifically trained to handle autistic individuals and others on the spectrum, as well as understand relevant terminology.
I had always felt like avoidance of the term “disabled” was meant to signify that just because people have disabilities in specific areas, they are not lesser people. That is to say that I didn’t think political correctness in this area was problematic, but you obviously have a different perspective.
Thank you for educating me and all of us.