The world of disability spends a lot of its time arguing about semantics. This has been particularly true of the Autistic community, sometimes to an unproductive degree, though it seems to have been less of a problem recently as other events and concerns have occupied our attention. People who say the wrong words sometimes still mean the right things. They still want self-determination for disabled people. People who use the right words don’t always do what we would wish. ‘Neurodiversity’ seems to be slapped on everything these days, regardless of whether or not that thing is in keeping with the principles which came with the term in its more controversial days. Semantics are a fairly weak predictor of how a given person or organization will think or act. However, there is one semantic tell which remains very good at unveiling attitudes.
When a disabled person has a problem related to ableism, whether in the sense of entrenched, systemic inequality or individual prejudice, observers often comment on the predicament in one of two ways. They either say something like “I wouldn’t want that to happen to my loved one” or “I wouldn’t want that to happen to me.” This passes so quickly that it easily goes unnoticed, but it tends to be incredibly revealing. Which of those things a given person says almost perfectly tracks how much compassion and social model creativity that individual is going to bring to addressing the problem. Those who imagine themselves in the position of the disabled person are almost always the ones who ‘get it’ and will do more to solve the problem.
This may be because the difference between those two statements is far more than semantics. “I wouldn’t like my loved one” to endure a given bad experience demonstrates a kind of detached sympathy. It shows the understanding that the thing that has happened is not enjoyable for the person going through it. “I wouldn’t want that to happen to me” sounds similar at first glance, but it is a drastically different statement. It signifies a willingness to identify with the disabled person, maybe even an understanding of how normal and universal disability is. This more empathetic perspective tends to go hand-in-hand with understanding that disabled people are people who want the same kinds of basic opportunities in life that others do.
That respect for our personhood is essential to the safety of disabled people. It distinguishes the people who are on our side as we seek justice and opportunity, even if we disagree on some issues, from people who are fundamentally opposed to our well-being. Understanding us as equals tends to mean feeling injustices perpetrated against us viscerally. That may be the reason which of these little turns of phrase are such an effective tell. Semantics and ideological purity sometimes consume too much attention in the movement for disability rights and disability justice, but words are sometimes important because they can reveal attitudes.
Again, this can transpire in surprising ways. The people who use the most cutting-edge jargon and preferred terminology are not always the people behaving ways Autistic and other disabled people prefer. Someone can stumble over words or use the wrong ones because of a disability, because of not having the time or resources to learn the latest and greatest right words, or for any number of other reasons. Someone can articulate an ideology perfectly, in precisely the right terms, and remain unwilling to live out what the words and ideas mean. A simple turn of phrase that demonstrates the ability to see us as sufficiently human to identify with us is far more revealing. Whatever else there may be to teach a given person about disability issues, it demonstrates the basic grasp of our humanity which is the essential prerequisite to becoming an ally.