Translating the language of disability

Apart from campaigning for large-scale social, political and legislative changes (see Berghs et al. 2019 for a detailed examination of these efforts), one of the key challenges posed by the disability movement is to change the way disability is spoken about in media and amongst wider public, similar to the changing discourse surrounding sexuality, gender or race. As the WHO stresses in their World Report on Disability, ‘[negative imagery and language, stereotypes, and stigma - with deep historic roots - persist for people with disabilities around the world’ (WHO 2011: 6). The aim of these linguistic changes is to question and ultimately abolish common phrases that vilify or victimise people with various disabilities, contribute to the deep-seated stigmatisation of non-normative bodies, and associate disability with negative stereotypes. These changes spread together with disability activism across the world, and their local linguistic variations present some interesting translation challenges.

The most obvious, as well as the most widely observed change related to these shifts, is the gradual removal of words associated with disabilities that were widely used as expletives. Words such as ‘cripple’,7 ‘freak’ and ‘retarded’ are now considered highly offensive and have largely disappeared from public discourse and most forms of polite conversation in English. This is widely mirrored in languages that use terms with the same etymological base; the German variation of cripple, Krüppel, is flagged as ‘diskriminierend’ [discriminatory] in the newest online version of the Duden dictionary,8 whereas the Slovak version kripel is labelled as pejorative in the Dictionary of Present-day Slovak Language from 2015 (Slovnik sùcasného slovenského jazyka)? The situation becomes more complicated in the case of terms which are not used as expletives per se, but that are nonetheless considered outdated and unsuitable for (Anglophone) public discourse. Perhaps the most prominent example of this category is the term ‘invalid’. The UK government’s Guidance for Inclusive Language Related to Disability recommends that the term is replaced with ‘disabled person’, and the accompanying table detailing the use of correct and incorrect terms suggests that it is synonymous with ‘cripple’.10 On the other hand, both the Slovak and Czech languages use the term ‘invalid’ in its adjectival form as the legal and official term for disability benefits (invalidity dôchodoklinvalidni dùchod, lit. invalid pension). This fact is not lost on local disability activists; a recent guide on How to Speak and Write about and to Persons with Disabilities published by the Czech Ombudsperson (Jak mluvit a psât o lidech a s lidmi spostizenim, Ombudsman vefejny ochrancepràv 2020: 8) advises: ‘[w]e do not recommend using the expression “invalid”, although we are aware that the term is still in use within the legal parlance’, citing the term’s association with illness and inability to do things as their reasons for this recommendation." A similar case is the term ‘handicapped’, which is now considered inappropriate in Anglophone disability discourse but remains in regular use in many other languages. As an example, the French translation of the aforementioned CRPD definition of disability translates ‘persons with disabilities’ as ‘personnes handicapées’ (‘handicapped persons’, Nations Unies 2006: 4).

Another interesting example is the term ‘ableism’, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘[discrimination in favour of able-bodied people; prejudice against or disregard of the needs of disabled people’, and first recorded in the English language in 1981.12 The noun was created on the same principle as ‘sexism’ or ‘racism’, using the ‘able’ part of ‘disabled’ at its core.13 However, ‘disability’ is not a widely used term outside of the Anglophone realm, and most languages will have a local expression which typically does not allow for the same linguistic cut-and-paste operation as in English.

The German language recognises the term Behindertenfeindlichkeit [lit. hostility against the disabled] which follows the same pattern as Islamfeindlichkeit (Islamophobia, lit. hostility against Islam) and Fremdenfeindlichkeit (Xenophobia, lit. hostility against the foreign). However, the expression does not fully cover the semantic range of the English term; phobia!Feindlichkeit suggests an irrational or excessive fear of a group, as opposed to ‘ism’ in racism or sexism, which implies active and often institutionalised discrimination against said group. Some voices within disability activism in Germany have already noted this discrepancy (Maskos 2010), and the term ableism is gradually becoming more widespread (sometimes spelt as ‘Ableismus’ or ‘Able-ismus’, see Interessenvertretung Selbstbestimmt Leben in Deutschland 2016). Neither the Slovak nor the Czech language have a local word for ableism, which further emphasises the fact that the issue of discrimination against disabled people has been systemically overlooked throughout the history of these countries. Both the Czech transliteration (‘ableismus’) and the Slovak one (‘ableizmus’) have recently entered these countries’ disability discourse, but for now they can only be found in activist blogs and webpages (such as articles from the Czech portal Mujautismus'4 or Slovak Transfüzia'5).

While the examples above might suggest that global disability discourse relies solely on changes adapted from Anglophone models, this is decidedly not the case. For example, the aforementioned Czech guidance on language related to disability considers the term ‘cteni ze rtü’ (lit. reading from lips; lipreading) as inappropriate, as it wrongly suggests that the practice is as precise and easy as the ‘reading’ of the alphabet, and places an overly strong emphasis on lips only, as opposed to a whole range of gestures accompanying the practice (Ombudsman vefejny ochrance präv 2020: 11). The guidance instead recommends ‘odezirani’ (lit. closest ‘looking/staring from’) as the correct term, whereas most Anglophone DHH communities use the term ‘lipreading’ without objection.

Apart from opposing harmful or offensive expressions, disability activism also places an emphasis on what is referred to as ‘people-first’ language, which promotes a view of disabled people as whole beings, not defined by their disability alone. For this reason, ‘people with epilepsy’ is the preferred term to ‘epileptics’ (which suggests epilepsy is the only trait of these people) or ‘victims of epilepsy’ (which promotes the victim-centric, pity-inducing view of disability). Similarly, ‘wheelchair user’ is a preferred term to ‘wheelchair-bound’ or ‘confined to a wheelchair’, as the term foregrounds the image of the mobility aid and a supposedly helpless, immobile person ‘bound’ to it. At the same time, it overlooks the fact that many people use wheelchairs on an ambulatory basis, meaning that they are able to walk under certain circumstances and use wheelchairs to conserve energy, prevent vertigo and many other reasons. These changes are likewise mirrored in the aforementioned Czech guidelines, which recommend the omission of terms such as vozickaf (compound noun from ‘wheelchair user’) and to replace it with ‘Clovek pohybujici se na vozikulclovek s omezenim hybnosti’ [Person moving in a wheelchair/person with limited mobility] (Ombudsman vefejny ochrance präv 2020: 8).

It is also important to note that not all variations of English use people-first language when it comes to the term ‘people with disabilities’. While this is the expression preferred in the United States and most Anglophone disability discourse, the UK community largely chooses to refer to themselves as ‘disabled people’. The UK nomenclature shows a strong influence of the social model whose proponents suggest that ‘persons with disabilities’ implies that disabled people have ownership or responsibility over their experience of disability, rather than disability being an intrinsic part of who they are.

These discrepancies even within the English language itself highlight the importance of a nuanced and informed approach to the various languages of disability, which would account for the individual voices within the disabled communities and actively encourage the de-stigmatisation of its members.

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