An article by Mark Aronoff in The Chronicle of Higher Education (available free to nonsubscribers for just a few days) asks the question "In Discussing Disabilities, Are We Linguistically Disabled?" I missed it, but apparently back in June Today show personality Al Roker made a joke about the animated logo for the 2012 London Olympics that had to be changed because it triggered seizures for some people with epilepsy. Roker's comment:
"Remember that controversial Olympic logo for the 2012 Olympics in London? Some folks have complained that the campaign actually sent them into epileptic seizures. Well, we asked you to weigh in on our Web site in an informal poll; those of you who could get up off the floor after shaking around were able to actually log in."And here's his apology, offered the following day:
"I started joking about it. I want to make this clear — I was not joking about epilepsy or anyone who suffers from epilepsy. ... We understand and know that this is a serious affliction and would never joke about that. ... We were joking about the logo — not about epilepsy. If anybody was offended, I heartily and really humbly apologize."Well, of course, he was joking about epilepsy and the people who have it. If he'd been joking about the logo only, he'd have made the crack about advertising promotions made by committee or London's competence in planning the big event or the International Olympic Committee needing a doping rules exception for anti-convulsive drugs. It's a fairly typical non-apology apology. He didn't do anything wrong, but he's sorry anyway.
Aronoff asks and offers an answer for the question of why Roker's joke created a furor:
There are two reasons. The first, much discussed, is Roker's hypocrisy. Roker was one of the most insistent critics of Don Imus's infamous "nappy-headed ho's" comment, which eventually led to Imus's dismissal. Why, some ask, should Roker not be held to the same standard? The second reason, less discussed but worthier of comment, is the taboo status of disability in American culture and especially public language.I disagree with that second reason for the upset over Roker's comment. Roker was being a hypocrite and should be held to the same standard, but I don't think jokes about the disabled are taboo. I think they're considered very much fair game. Witness the frequent use of "retarded" by high profile comedians like Jon Stewart or the common reference to some politician's or celebrity's poor decision as "crazy." I think this particular joke by Roker was about having a seizure -- a specific physical and medical event -- which is distinguishable from being a person who has seizures. Joking about having seizures is perceived as like wishing someone bad luck or misfortune, and that's what was considered in poor taste.
Over the last two decades, disability has become the most taboo subject in American society. We seem unable to reconcile the fundamental tenet that all men are created equal with the equally powerful new admiration for physical and emotional perfection that drives so many of us to plastic surgery and Prozac. To a linguist, though, regardless of the cause, the evidence is in our language.
Aronoff goes on to note that taboo subjects are sometimes treated with complete silence or discussed through euphemisms. "A good euphemism," he says, "should always sound a bit peculiar, allowing us to create a distance between ourselves and the subject, as if we are saying the word in shudder quotes or picking it up with tongs." Think "physically challenged" or handi-capable."
Aronoff also states that a taboo subject can be identified by the instability of terminology used to discuss it, like the evolution of terms for race ("colored," "black," "African-American"). I'd agree with that, as far as it goes, but I think this instability also indicates efforts to speak the unspeakable and expresses changing cultural attitudes. If someone refers unironically to "colored people" or "crippled kids" they're not simply using antiquated language, they're displaying a blatant failure to see or embrace current (or emerging) cultural norms. Language use is a barometer of an individual's social beliefs.
The disability taboo is part of a larger societal trend to taboo all perceived hu-man defects, all departures from physical and mental perfection. That larger taboo has led to one of the strangest and most notable euphemisms in the history of any language or culture: the "people (living) with X" construction. What is most interesting about that euphemism is that it is not a single expression but a frame that allows speakers to construct an entire family of euphemisms, since X can be any tabooed condition, and the word "living" is optional.
The construction appears to have started with chronic diseases, in such expressions as people (living) with cancer/AIDS/ADHD/etc. One rationale for this way of putting things was that by literally placing the person first, not the condition, we are de-emphasizing the condition. Another was that it allowed us to avoid the degrading term "victim," as in "cancer victim." The "people (living) with X" construction quickly moved beyond chronic diseases to stigmatized human conditions that had always been described with adjectives, like (mentally) retarded. Now they are people (living) with mental retardation. More broadly, where we formerly spoke of disabled people, we now say people with disabilities or, following the California examples, people with nothing but abilities, which, by deleting the negative prefix dis-, allows us to remove ourselves even further from the unspeakable. Finally, we have a simple way to talk about disability without mentioning it at all!
I wish there was a disability equivalent to the term "queer." Something to express difference and the vast spectrum of ability that "disability" doesn't indicate. "Crip" and "gimp" are mobility-specific, but do have a directness that's needed to counter the euphemisms. George Carlin has an old comedy bit about how euphemisms get longer to distance the discussion from the impact of the idea -- "shell shock" became "battle fatigue" and then "post-traumatic stress disorder." Syllable-count works as bullshit detector, really. So, where's our one-syllable word?