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Questions about Language


JOAN RINGELHEIM: What is a disability? How do you define it? And you notice in the exhibition, the word “handicapped” is used, which was the old word. It’s not just the Nazi word, right?

HARRIET MCBRYDE JOHNSON: Yeah. “Handicapped” was the polite word in my childhood. That was what nice people said where I lived. My school, though, said “Crippled Children’s School.” And my summer camp was run by a place that had the word “cripple” in its official organization. So those were the nice words back then. And part of what the movement has done is a continual redefining and self defining that sometimes seems kind of silly. But it’s really rather powerful. And in 1977, I was a delegate to something that I think was called in the legislation the White House Conference on the Handicapped. And by the time we convened, it was called the White House Conference on Handicapped Individuals, and one of the things we did at the meeting was decide that we were the White House Conference on People with Disabilities. And there was a lot of back and forth and arguing about that in 1977. But the idea, and this is still, I mean, the acceptable language today is what they call “people first” language. If you’d say a person with a disability, or a person with a specific disability like multiple sclerosis, or a person who is deaf. I have never totally liked that. It seems to me a little bit like calling a woman a person with a vagina. [laughter].

You know, it’s just you know, I don’t know. I’m a crip and that’s okay. But I like to get this question because I don’t use the correct language all the time in my political work, when I’m talking to my friends, and it annoys some people because some people find it very hurtful. But to me, I mean, when I’m a lawyer, when I’m writing for a mainstream publication, when I’m a professional, I try to use the language that’s generally acceptable. But when I’m among friends, when I’m among my people, that other language comes out. And it was the language that we use for ourselves and what I call the “disability ghetto.” We called each other “crips.” We called each other “feebs.” We called each other “spazers, crazy,” you know, whatever. And the teachers would say, “now, don’t use that language. That’s not good language.” And so it was part of our rebellion to not be, you know, the “crippled children” like we were on the school bus or on the telethon but to be crips, and, so that’s kind of where I came from. But it’s something that’s very much argued about and there are real divisions in the community and lots of the folks in our community, particularly folks who haven’t had disabilities very long, want to be people first, they want to be as… they want to emphasize the similarities with other people and that’s just not kind of where my experiences put me.

Harriet McBryde Johnson discusses questions about language.