Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Kid O Is CPed, or How Crippling Language and Sentimentality Dehumanizes Disabled Children and Adults

This past Monday I came back to Twitter after a weekend away only to have to face up to the error of my ways in regards to the word "handicapped." This led to much anger, angst and upset on my part. Yesterday morning I logged into Twitter to this post from a twitter friend. (OK, it's Ira.) focusing on whether Tiny Tim was a negative or positive portrayal of a disabled child. I've read Dickens but not A Christmas Carol, so I've only had the Hollywood sentimentalization to go by.

All these years I felt that Dickens was presenting me with a caricature of a disabled child, when, in fact, it was Hollywood all along who was deserving of my contempt. I should have known better, as works like Bleak House, for instance, point out how acutely aware Dickens was of the struggle of the working class. I wish that my Victorian Lit class had been taught incorporating Ira's historical knowledge, as it would have been a much more meaningful experience for me. I was so uninspired by the class that it's the only time I needed a professor to pick a paper topic for me. This was a graduate level class, too.

I always objected to the pure sentimentalization and emotional manipulation of Tiny Tim as depicted by Hollywood. Now that Ira Socol has separated out Hollywood versions from the original, I now understand how Tiny Tim was included within his family while not being included by the rest of society. There is perhaps a subtle irony with which Dickens has Bob Cratchit report Tim's assertion that, "...he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.'"

The bitter truth is that those attending church that day very likely looked the other way because they did not want to be reminded of disabled children and other imperfections of creation. After all if there is a God then there'd be no misery of any kind because God would be merciful and not allow for such blemishes on his peoplescape. Religious people do not want to have their sentimental visions of a god who answers their prayers shaken by harsh realities. Sorry, Tim, they are more likely wishing that you and other disabled children would conveniently disappear. Or, at the very least, get swept under the rug. Out of sight and blessedly out of mind. We cannot have emotional discomfort, especially on Christmas Day, which, since the mid-19th Century, has been subverted from celebration of Christ's birth to the the worship of material wealth and comforts, which in turn leads to shallower expressions of emotion in the form of sentimentality and nostalgia, as opposed to deeper, more authentic expressions of emotion in the form of compassion and genuine empathy for one's fellow man. That in turn leads to objectification of the disabled and other less desirable members of our society. When we objectify disabled people, we turn them into people to be pitied rather than people to be empowered.

Some of the worst offenders for rolling out the disabled child to ensure that the tote board total jumps up is Jerry Lewis and the MDA telethon. Thankfully there are organizations such as Jerry's Orphans that vividly portray what it's like to be a grown up "kid". Adults suffer from forms of muscular dystrophy, too, but they are rarely heard from.

The Kids Are All Right

The kids are all right. So are many disabled adults. I am just starting to learn about person first language. Until recently I saw no problem with the word, "handicapped." Cap in hand. Although the phrase "cap in hand" does not come from "handicapped," the connotations and images remain much the same as language evolved. And in Kid O's case, it connotes someone who could end up on the fringes of society working in a sheltered workshop.

I also realized I had never asked Kid O how she would like to be labeled (other than just a kid, that is). Given her limited ability to effectively express more complex ideas (note: not the same as being able to comprehend more complex ideas), I asked her, using a two hand system. Touch this hand for answer a) and this hand for answer b) She ruled out "handicapped" in favor of "disabled." So I took it one step further. She prefers being known as someone with cerebral palsy. My small problem with that (OK, sometimes huge amounts of angst) is that you can say, "she is handicapped," or "she is disabled." But, try as you might, you cannot say, "she is cerebral palsy." Others have suggested saying that "she is a wheelchair user." But Kid O does not use a wheelchair in the sense that she is able to wheel herself around. She sits in a wheelchair and others push her, ie, "use" it, if you will. So I am thinking I need to coin a new phrase. "She is CPed." I could give into convention and say Kid O is disabled, but that is too encompassing a word. She is CPed. Kid O doesn't have CP as if it were some dread disease. But CP is part of her identity. Kid O is a girl who has CP. It's cumbersome language. If we can say "she is handicapped" or "she is disabled," why not "she is CPed?"

Now that may seem like quibbling to some, but there is a difference between being something "blind, deaf," and having something. You have an illness. Someone may be a cancer patient, but, passively, they have cancer. Does that mean they own the cancer or that the cancer owns them? There is no ownership of cerebral palsy. It just... is. Kid O is CPed.

Kid O is not differently abled. She is not "handi-abled" as the gym teacher on Glee says. Kid O is CPed. I am not circumferentially challenged. I am fat. Kid O is not physically challenged. Kid O is CPed. Kid O is physically disabled. Kid O is a kid, actually a teenager, with many positive traits and many flaws first and the disability, cerebral palsy, that defines her second. Kid O is not an angel flying too close to the ground. Kid O does not have special "other" powers. Kid O is a human being. Sugarcoating the language about disability is to sentimentalize Kid O to the point of creating a caricature and denying Kid O her humanness. Sometimes she is a human board. Sometimes she is a mule kicking machine. Sometimes she is very primal in her communication. But one thing Kid O always is is very human. Kid O is CPed.

If we deny the disabled their right to call themselves what they will, and if we use feel good sentimental language, then we are doing a disservice to the disabled individual. Furthermore, we are doing a disservice to ourselves by denying our own discomforts with truths about the human condition. There are the infirm and disabled and disfigured among us, and we need to stop cheapening their lives by using disabled people as props and considering them objects of pity. When we objectify a human being, we are committing an act of psychic and linguistic violence. We need to look inside and figure out why we are not comfortable around certain people. We, as a society, need to confront our disablism. Disabled children and adults do not have deficits. Disabled children and adults are whole, just the way they are. Disabled children and adults are just human. Kid O is CPed.


  1. Words matter. Names matter. What we call things matter. What we call places matter. What we call people matters. But all these names of things say more about the names than the named.

    I am Deven, not a Deven. That's the difference between people and things; we are aware of our names, we are aware of what people call us.

    Too often we talk about and treat disabled persons as if they were things, as if they were not aware.

    .John was born without the ability to see. John is blind. JIll used to be able to see but has lost her sight. Jill has been blinded. Not being able to see is part of what makes John John. Not being able to see is something that changed Jill.

    Was Kid O CPed or was she born with the set of effects that we call cerebral palsy?

    In one of my posts on my blog I tell the story of a friend of mine who also has some effects of what we call cerebral palsy, though different effects (or perhaps the same effects to a different degree) than Kid O has. This friend does not see herself as handicapped, disabled or anything else other than normal. She is herself, just the way she normally is.

    Kid O is normal. She's just the normal way Kid O is.

    Too bad most people won't see her that way. It is their loss.

  2. Of course Kid O is normal. You and I are not in disagreement about that. I am exploring "has" versus "is" I find the language cumbersome. If "handicapped" is unacceptable as a descriptor, and if "disabled" is too all encompassing, then what is left? I don't want to say that Kid O is cerebral palsy. That would be very wrong. I also don't want to say, "Kid O, who happens to have CP." If someone like Kid O is handicapped or is disabled, then why not more precisely "is CPed?" Also her choice does seem to be to say, if she could, "I have cerebral palsy." My problem with "have" as opposed to "is" is that "have" sounds like some disease. Knocking on my wooden head, Kid O is very healthy. To me, "I have CP" sounds like an admission to having some disease. Perhaps I am a CP person? Dunno. I am trying to find a way to people first language,and, right now Kid O is CPed is the best I can come up with. But of course she is not cerebral palsy. She is one of many faces. Not the face. I am looking for more precise language. I am also looking for language she may prefer. I am ashamed to say that, until recently, I never thought to ask her before.

    And, yes, it is their loss if people cannot see beyond Kid O's physical challenges. That seems to be what i am up against in fighting for her education. If people were to look into Kid O's eyes, they would know what a vibrant personality lies behind. They would also see her wicked sense of humor. They would laugh with her. Not at her. Or privately pity her. Or think she's a simpleton.