It's Time for
I had a life transforming experience earlier this year when I
attended a Philia conference in Quebec.
Most of the presenters spoke French, and as an English
-only speaking individual, I found the experience frustrating and
challenging. As I sat patiently, and sometimes
not so patiently waiting for a
translation, it struck me how "disabled" I felt. I felt
completely inadequate to participate and
contribute in my usual ways.. Being "disabled"
offered me an insight I had not understood before. Though I was
disabled, it wasn't me who was disabled. Rather, it was my
relationship with others which was
I thought about the word "disability" and how we use it
in our culture. We use it as a label to
describe people. The impact of this is that we come to perceive
people as disabled, rather than the relationship. I wonder if our
efforts to acquire inclusion and citizenship for
all individuals is limited by the very
language we use. Language has the power to form our reality. It
creates our way of seeing others and the world.
It seems to me that so long as we continue
to use language as "disability" , further progress will be
limited. Maybe it's time to formulate new
language -language which acknowledges the
vision in which all citizens are valued and included, and have the
opportunity to contribute to society.
I offer a suggestion. It is not perfect, but it's possibly the
next step in our evolution. I propose we
identify a word which means, "the unrecognized citizen".
My reasons are as follows: Firstly, imbedded in this language is
the acknowledgement of citizenship. Citizenship
for all. It doesn't debate the merits of
individuals with a disability as citizens. It simply presents
citizenship as a given. Secondly, "the
unrecognized citizen" speaks of the inability
of the community to recognize the citizenship of these individuals.
Thirdly, it speaks to the relationship we have with these individuals.
This language invites us to recognize these individuals as "citizens",
and to take action to correct this situation.
My experience in Quebec informed me that it is the relationship
between myself and other citizens which is
disabled. It is not me. When this is fully
acknowledged, my dignity remains intact. The focus shifts from
changing me, to changing or augmenting the
relationship to allow me to participate
more fully. And this is what I believe ought to be at the core
of all of our work and care for people we have labelled
as "disabled" - to assist
in ensuring they are able to participate fully in society.
When a fish is in water, the fish is agile, effective, and
competent in its relationship with others
and its environment. Placing a fish on land "disables"
the fish. The corrective measure is not to change the fish, but
to change the environment - change the
relationship between the fish and its
environment. So too with humans. Corrective measure is best focused,
not on changing the individual, but on changing
the environment, changing the relationship
between the individual and their environment.
I think this new language has the potential
to focus all of us, professionals, families,
and community members alike, in a more positive, constructive,
and respectful direction. I invite your comments and suggestions
to Caring Citizen