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In America, Struggling for the 'Correct' Terminology to Discuss Disabilities

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble and this week on Wordmaster: talking about disabilities.

RS: Mark Aronoff is a linguist at Stony Brook University on Long Island, New York. He says over the last twenty years, it's become difficult to find a more taboo subject in American society than disability. As evidence, he cites the discomfort that many people have in finding neutral words to talk about disability without offending anyone

AA: In fact, in an essay last week in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Professor Aronoff says that when it comes to terminology, "disability is now at the point that race was fifty years ago," when he was a child.

MARK ARONOFF: "So what's happened is that words that fifty years ago were perfectly acceptable words have become unacceptable words, like 'crippled.' We had 'hospitals for crippled children.' And that was perfectly normal discourse. You could say 'so-and-so was crippled by polio.'"

RS: "What about the word 'disabled'? Is that a word that doesn't work?"

MARK ARONOFF: "I don't know. And what struck me, I guess, was I had that little anecdote in the story about 'accessible' ... "

RS: "Right, why don't you tell us about that."

MARK ARONOFF: "It happened to be in California but it could be anywhere else. I'm approaching a men's room and there's a sign next to it that says 'nearest accessible restrooms on the third floor.' And as I'm walking in, I said to myself, well, accessible to whom? I mean, this is restroom is accessible. And then I realized that what they meant was disabled-accessible. But they didn't want to even use the word."

AA: "So euphemistically they call it 'accessible.'"

MARK ARONOFF: "Right, but what's happened is that -- the greatest euphemism is simply not saying the word at all."

RS: "You say here the disability taboo is part of a larger societal trend to taboo all perceived human defects."

MARK ARONOFF: "Right, and we all have defects, right? It seems to me that on the one hand we are trying to be a much more inclusive society -- even here on campus, for example, we have students with severe, severe physical disabilities that in earlier times would have prevented them from getting a college education. On the other hand, we're bombarded with these images of physical perfection -- you know, David Beckham and Posh."

RS: "I think it's interesting here, you talk about the 'family of euphemisms,' you talk about 'people living with X.' Talk about that construction."

MARK ARONOFF: "Right, it's like a little formula, so that it's 'people living with AIDS,' 'people living with mental retardation,' 'people living with cancer,' whatever you want them to be living with. I call it a 'family of euphemisms' in the sense that it's kind of an open-ended formula that allows you to euphemize about any of these conditions."

AA: "Well, now, I suppose activists would point out the long history of discrimination against people with disabilities or certain diseases and that they might ask: What right does someone who is not disabled have writing something like this, or challenging what might be seen as an attempt to be more sensitive in describing people who are in that condition?"

MARK ARONOFF: "I wasn't trying to pass judgment on people's use of these euphemisms, whether they were good or bad. All that I was trying to point out is that they are euphemisms. I do research on sign language, and deaf people want to be called deaf. They don't want to be called 'hearing-impaired.' And that was a long struggle for them, because for them, by not calling them deaf, you're trying to euphemize them away."

RS: "What you're noticing, do you feel that we have gone so far to the political correctness that we're afraid to even broach a subject? Or do you feel that because the communities that are empowered, that want to be known as who they are, are coming back a little bit to a more central position in which we're able to talk?"

MARK ARONOFF: "No, I think that in public discourse, I mean outside maybe these small communities of activists, this particular topic of disability is becoming more and more difficult to talk about."

AA: Mark Aronoff is a linguistics professor and associate provost at Stony Brook University, part of the State University of New York. The Chronicle of Higher Education published his article in the July twenty-seventh issue of the Chronicle Review.

RS: And that's Wordmaster for this week. Archives are online at With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.