Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Language of Labels

Last week I drove to a meeting with one of my co-workers. I'm not even sure how the conversation started but we ended up having a fascinating discussion about definitions and terms that are used to label people.

Specifically, we discussed the terms disability, condition, illness, and disease.

I explained to her that I have met a few people with type 1 diabetes who find the word 'condition' to be very offensive. They argue that condition is defined as a state of health. As in, he was in critical condition or she was in prime condition.

So, arguably, we can have type 1 diabetes and still be in pretty darn good condition. Or in really bad condition. But diabetes itself is not a condition.

So I said to her that I don't have a chronic condition, I have a chronic illness.

And she replied "I don't think that's the right word either".

"Chronic disease then?" I asked. "That sounds better" she replied.

Then she launched into an explanation of the term disability and the conversation really became fascinating.

According to what she learned in school, disability is a transient rather than a permanent thing. For example, someone might have a physical impairment that requires them to use a wheelchair to get around. The impairment is permanent - they will always have that impairment. But it doesn't necessarily mean that they always have a disability. If they live in an area where everything is completely accessible to them - then technically they are not disabled because they are able to function the same way everyone else can. But if they live in a area that is full of barriers - that's when they become disabled.

So I asked "if the person lives in a large city with an accessible home and accessible transit, buildings, workplaces, stores etc then they are not disabled but if they move to a small town where they cannot take the bus, get into stores or buildings, then they are disabled?"

"Pretty much" was the answer.

That's fascinating.

"Just like how, if someone with Down Syndrome lives in a small town and they are a fully accepted and active member of that community, then they really don't have a disability. They still have Down Syndrome but they don't have a disability. Take the same person and put them in a larger city where they can't easily integrate into the community, get a job, contribute, access services etc and suddenly they have a disability."

That is SO interesting. I had never thought of disability that way before.

When I got home that evening I looked up the terms illness and disease. According to my research, an illness is a state where a person has feelings of pain or discomfort for no identifiable reason.

Identify the reason (eg. diabetes, cancer etc) and then they have a disease. So I guess, based on that definition, I have a chronic disease. Not an illness and not a condition.

I don't know about you folks but I find language absolutely fascinating. I am amazed how some people are able to weave words into eloquent stories that describe perfectly how they are feeling or what they are thinking. And yet what is often the case is that people can't quite find the correct term to explain how they're feeling or what they're thinking - it can lead to all sorts of frustrations and misunderstandings.

Language can set people free and it can also put people into tiny boxes that limits their ability to do what they want to do. I see that every day and I hate it.

But on a purely intellectual level - it sure is fun to debate and discuss the meaning of things and the nuances that make our language so beautiful and so powerful.

1 comment:

  1. Whoa! Disability IS. I am a wheelchair user, I identify as a disabled man. Who I am cannot be and should not be lingusitically euthanized. If you work in an office, completely accepting of who you are as a person and as a woman, you aren't then a man. You don't lose your gender. I don't lose my disability. Disability isn't a 'label' it's a state of being. The disability rights movement isn't seeking to eradicate disability it's seeking to eradicate barriers. I shudder at the idea of the loss of self that is discussed here. So, I'm on the 'disabled and proud' corner.