Essay on the Politics of English Clarity and Them Folk with Disabilities


One can read theories about stigma, or about the cultural formations of difference. These are necessary and instructive but as I grow older I can’t help but feel our efforts to understand disability as a marginalized human category cannot fully bear fruit without accessing the politics of clarity–an Orwellian thought to be sure but more evident to me now. Do not misread me: I believe in talking back to “the man” and believe in the ardor of revisioning dominant or pejorative narratives, how could a so called “disability” writer be otherwise? Yet I think that the rhetorics of opposition concentrate and then recaste difference until the one who cries out is nearly exhausted with effort. Here I think of James Baldwin’s assertion: “A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled.” That there are those who despise people with disabilities seems evident even some twenty years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. That people with disabilities cannot afford to be fooled is a matter for the politics of clarity. 

The post-human age may yet give us some new places to roll or stand. The evolutions of cyborgian prostheses will likely help to break down the “normative-abnormal” dichotomy that has dominated both the theory and reality of disablement. Aimee Mullins and Oscar Pistorias have redirected the fashion industry which will inevitably embrace the postnormative. This is all too the good. Yet I think it’s a safe bet that while prosthesis may become no different than the brand of automobile one drives, invisible disabilities or those that produce a public misapprehension about intellectual capacity (blindness, apparent deafness) will remain problematic in the town square. While physical difference can become fashionable, disablement as a capacity of mind is more difficult for the public nerve. In Western tradition we tend to believe in the mind as a substance rather than an essence, we cherish thought that is fast and muscular but denigrate neuroatypical thinking. We believe in “mind over matter” and imagine that those with learning disabilities or who are on the autism spectrum are simply not doing enough pushups. 


As I’ve already said, a person with a disability cannot afford to be fooled. The nominative and representational characteristics of invisible disability (or any condition that challenges dominant models of identity and attention) will require fresh language in a new century. Enter Orwell. The politics of language demand precision. In one of the best essays in English on the subject of language and physical difference, Nancy Mairs describes how she arrived at the decision to call herself a cripple: 

 “"Cripple" seems to me a clean word, straightforward and precise. It has an honorable history, having made its first appearance in the Lindisfarne Gospel in the tenth century. As a lover of words, I like the accuracy with which it describes my condition: I have lost the full use of my limbs. "Disabled," by contrast, suggests any incapacity, physical or mental. And I certainly don't like "handicapped," which implies that I have deliberately been put at a disadvantage, by whom I can't imagine (my God is not a Handicapper General), in order to equalize chances in the great race of life. These words seem to me to be moving away from my condition, to be widening the gap between word and reality. Most remote is the recently coined euphemism "differently abled," which partakes of the same semantic hopefulness that transformed countries from "undeveloped" to "underdeveloped," then to "less developed," and finally to "developing" nations. People have continued to starve in those countries during the shift. Some realities do not obey the dictates of language.” 

Mairs writes famously, “as a cripple, I swagger” a position that’s unassailable given the economic abjection in “disability”–that Victorian term still tied to the factories of the Industrial Revolution–it was Karl Marx’s noun for those who lacked the economic utility to be useful workers. Surely “disability” does not swagger. Moreover the word carries no degree or standard of completeness. This is its signature problem for if a cripple is entire, singular, and freed from oppositional enactments with ability, a person with a disability is trapped in a triangle of etceteras–unable, etc; incapable, etc; accordingly, vaguely sub-Cartesian–sans thought, etc. Disability disorganizes conduct and places physicality outside of possibility. So the term has less to do with opposition to normal activity and a good deal to do with a prejudicial conspiracy against the mind. Just as nothing in nature is truly broken, just as evolution defies the normal, there is no proper categorical or taxonomic position that can hypostatize variance or give it a name.    

As I’ve said more than once I prefer “world citizen” to disability. I prefer omnimodal essences and motive power.