Monday, March 8, 2010

Disabilities and Politically Correct Terminology: Some Current Articles

I just did a search for scholarly articles mentioning "politically correct" and "disabilities" in the first few months of this year.  This gave me 22 hits.  In this post, I set out to summarize what those articles said about disabilities and politically correct terminology.

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Whitfield, H. W., Venable, R., & Broussard, S. (2010). Are client-counselor ethnic/racial matches associated with successful rehabilitation outcomes? Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin, 53(2), 96-105.

This article did not mention political correctness, and therefore did not come up in my search.  What did come up was a document entitled “Continuing Education Questions” that appears on pages 121-123 of that same journal volume.  One of the questions referring to this article appears in that list of questions (on p. 122).

Turner, R. J. (2010, January 25). [Review of Review: Teach! Change! Empower! Solutions for closing the achievement gaps, by Carl A. Grant.] InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 6(1).

Turner uses “politically correct” in two places.  The first says this:
Grant does make it clear that educators [apparently at the high school level] should work in groups (p. 1), and that the encouragement of colleagues may lead to greater candor. But in our politically correct, hyper-polite society, whether co-workers will point comfortably to one another’s inner bigot is questionable.
In this quote, Turner seems to be critical of political correctness, equating it not with politeness, which would presumably be positive, but with hyper-politeness, which implies excess.  The nature of the excess that Turner identifies seems to be that politically correctness operates as a potential barrier to the frank identification of bigotry in one’s coworkers.
We teachers can no longer afford to insulate ourselves from difference and hide behind politically correct jargon if we want to remain relevant in a technologically driven global community.
Here, Turner again characterizes politically correctness as “jargon” and a barrier to relevance.  When she speaks of “difference,” she seems to be referring to the previous sentence, where she says (quoting Lu, 1992) that students and educators need to recognize the politics of their decisions.  Turner offers the example of an exercise, described in Grant’s book, in which the instructor selects books that involve race, class, gender, or disability, and develops multimodal assignments that allow student expression through writing, drawing, and role playing.  The point of such an exercise would be to involve students’ multiple learning intelligences in instructors’ efforts to “address the elephant in the room” by actively including different sociocultural groups in what they teach.

Turner, and apparently Grant, seem to be saying that, if differences among people are not deliberately brought into the classroom through e.g., the assignment of diversity-oriented books, then instructors will be essentially complicit in making sure that students are simply assimilated into the dominant culture.  Such assimilation will only exacerbate the “mire of esteem issues” that disadvantaged students struggle with.

The idea seems to be that teachers and/or readings tend to be from a gender, race, and/or social class that does not match those of many disadvantaged students; that this needs to be brought out into the open; and that politically correctness hinders teachers from doing so.  I am not sure how that last step works.  I am guessing that she means that teachers in very mixed classrooms in Los Angeles may be walking on eggshells to use politically correct terminology, and are therefore not communicating frankly and effectively.

Jerlinder, K. (2010). Swedish primary-school teachers' attitudes to inclusion - the case of PE and pupils with physical disabilities.  European Journal of Special Needs Education, 25(1), 45-57.

I was not able to access the full text of this article.  The abstract makes no references to political correctness.

Parley, F. (2010). The understanding that care staff bring to abuse. The Journal of Adult Protection, 12(1).

I was not able to access the full text of this article.  The abstract makes no references to political correctness.

Mohideen, H. Ali, M., & Mohideen, S. (2010). Awareness of contemporary lexical change for professional competence in English language education. European Journal of Social Sciences, 13(1).

The abstract for this article, written by two members of the faculty at the International Islamic University in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, states:
Influential languages such as English reinvent themselves and prosper. The ongoing language developments taking place in such dynamic languages make it imperative for language users to be up-to-date and be familiar with the changes affecting the language they are professionally involved with, more so those involved with its instruction. . . . Language teachers’ awareness of such changes will enhance their professional growth.
Within that background, the article’s sole reference to political corrections appears, in context, as follows:
As teachers, we need to be keenly aware of what has come to be known as verbal hygiene (Cameron, 1995). Verbal hygiene is non-offensive, non-sexist and non-racist language. There are interested groups who believe “that achieving a change in linguistic usage is itself a worthwhile form of public, political action and consciousness raising” (Holmes, 2008: 332). Verbal hygiene is synonymous with being politically correct and euphemistic [emphasis added]. When we practice verbal hygiene we avoid being vulgar, racist, sexist and discriminatory to individuals and specific groups of people. Gone are the days when we described our below average students as ‘weak’ and ‘poor’. Today we refer to them as ‘underachievers’. They are ‘intellectually challenged’ or ‘not very bright’. Positive words are included in describing disabilties. 
Educators need to use language which is not so unpleasant, less harsh and less hurtful. Euphemistic terms are being coined continually. Even the widely used term ‘disabled’ to refer to people with physical disability has been found to be inadequate. There is recognition that disabled people have abilities which are different from physically normal people. A new term which has been proposed is ‘people who are differently abled’. Another term now is ‘physically challenged’. 
Language instructors are looked upon as models for language use by students and parents. Euphemistic use will provide the instructors a healthy image of being sensitive, fair, contemporary and, accommodating.
I found this excerpt disturbing, amusing, remarkable; and the more I looked into it, the more so it became.  First, the editorial advisory board for this “European” journal named 30 people, of whom 21 (many with names that do not sound either European or American) were at universities in the United States, and six were at universities in Asian and Middle Eastern countries.  Of the other three, two were at universities in the United Kingdom, and one was at a university in Macdeonia.  It thus tentatively seemed to be more of an American or, at best, a global journal of perspectives on European social science.

I could not locate an introduction to the issue in which this article appeared.  It seemed that some, but not all, of the articles in this issue were pedagogically oriented.  As with this particular article, most seemed (judging by titles) to be oriented toward social science topics in developing nations, not in Europe.  At this point, then, I had no idea why this was called a European journal.  Its “Aims and Scope” said nothing about Europe, except to mention European Studies (among a number of other topics) as an area of focus.

The abstract, in the first excerpt quoted above, acknowledged the dominance of English, and attributed that dominance to the English language's dynamic self-reinvention.  In this context, the foregoing remarks about the journal’s provenance gave me the impression that its readers tended to be what one might call Third-World Anglophiles, especially in a social science sense.  The idea seemed to be that educated people from developing countries would convey Euro-American social science concepts back to, or would employ such concepts in, their homelands.  Politically correct language appeared to be a part of the socioscientific package being thus transmitted.  Current developments in disability-related terminology evidently comprise part of a cultural avant-garde with which non-native speakers of English are trying to keep up.

The point of the article (based upon the abstract and a brief glance otherwise) seemed to be that, to be competent and/or perceived as competent, an English teacher must remain current in his/her knowledge of English.  In the authors’ view, such a teacher should be aware that it is politically more correct to call a student “not very bright” than to call them “weak,” and that “differently abled” and “physically challenged” are new disability-related terms.  This was, as I say, remarkable.  In a brief search, I found “differently abled” in a footnote in a law journal article from 28 years ago (Ferleger, 1982, p. 595).  Not exactly a new term!  If this is the state of affairs for English teachers in developing nations, one might infer that the generation of new terminology will facilitate the disability-related linguistic inferiority of English learners in those nations for the indefinite future.

Interestingly, Ferleger's footnote read as follows:  "'Differently-abled'" is a more positive and more accurate description than 'handicapped' or 'disabled,' words which have acquired negative connotations, especially to those people to whom they are applied."  This prompted me to wonder:  if “disabled” can be rehabilitated as “persons with disabilities,” could “handicapped” fare likewise?

The foregoing excerpt from the Mohideen article equates political correctness with euphemism, which itself is defined as “the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant.”  Ferleger’s footnote thus seems to have identified the core issue:  euphemisms are preferred in order to avoid offending the people to whom they are applied.  The implicit message is that those people are vulnerable to what others call them.  This is a slippery slope.  What offends is not, ultimately, the term itself.  The arrangement of letters in c-r-i-p is not intrinsically more offensive than in its inverse, p-i-r-c.  What is offensive is how c-r-i-p is used.  It is (sometimes) used disparagingly, and therefore becomes something that some people would not want to be called.

The problem is that anything can be used disparagingly, and ultimately the attempt to avoid that reality (through e.g., “differently abled”) becomes disparaged itself.  For example, despite Ferleger's sensitivity, his own article uses words (e.g., "retarded") that are now considered insensitive.  What would seem to better serve the Mohideens and the disabled alike, at this point, would be to stop confusing people with new terms and focus instead, on developing clear and kindhearted understandings of people and situations.

It is interesting that the Mohideens consider political correctness to be a rejection not only of discrimination, but also of vulgarity.  Their perspective on what we are doing, with politically correct language, seems to be that we are incidentally looking down upon language that is common, coarse, and lacking in cultivation or taste.  And that is interesting, because discrimination tends to be against disadvantaged people, whose socioeconomic circumstances do frequently put them among the more uncultured elements of society.  In the name of helping less privileged people, that is, we seem to be disempowering those very people from speaking in their own terms.

A final observation:  as quoted above, the article says, “Euphemistic use will provide the instructors a healthy image of being sensitive, fair, contemporary and, accommodating.”  The authors seem to have unwittingly captured the key point:  political correctness conveys an image of fairness and sensitivity.  It does not necessarily have much to do with actual fairness and sensitivity.

Perlstein, M. (2010). Virgins and veterans: Culturally sensitive supervision in the LGBT community. Women & Therapy, 33(1-2), 85-100.

This article’s only reference to “political correctness” is as follows:
I feel that if one is not overly “politically correct,” humor that will not be perceived as laughing at someone but with someone helps ameliorate tense situations, allowing them to be held up to the light. 
Perlstein thus treats political correctness as a potential hindrance to therapeutic humor, consistent with a study suggesting that liberals enjoy humor less than conservatives (Ariely, 2008).  The point seems to be that someone whose sense of humor and ability to laugh at him/herself has not been eroded by abuse may find it easier to participate in the reduction of tension in some situations.

Lumby, J., & Morrison, M. (2010). Leadership and diversity: theory and research.  School Leadership & Management, 30(1), 3-17.

I was not able to access the full text of this article.  The abstract makes no references to political correctness.

Smith, S. R., Purzner, T., & Fehlings, M. G. (2010). The epidemiology of geriatric spinal cord injury. Topics in Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation, 15(3), 54-64.

I was not able to access the full text of this article.  The abstract makes no references to political correctness.

Kendler, K. S. (2010). The problem:  Charge to the conference.  In D. P. Goldberg, K. S. Kendler, P. J. Sirovatka, & D. A. Regier (Eds.), Diagnostic issues in depression and generalized anxiety disorder: Refining the research agenda for DSM-V.  Arlington, VA : American Psychiatric Association.

What Google Books identifies as this book’s only use of “politically correct” is as follows:  “Although it might be politically correct to argue that all validators are created equal, this is unlikely to be a sustainable position” (p. 7).  A validator, as Kendler is using the term here, seems to be something that validates an interpretation.  Kendler appears to be using the term in a tongue-in-cheek fashion:  he seems to be alluding to the concept that “all men are created equal,” and treating that as a politically correct belief.  It is interesting that he may thus inadvertently give us a glimmer of insight into how members of his circle view that concept.  In any event, he seems to be contrasting political correctness against accuracy.

Kaldjian, L. C., Shinkunas, L. A., Bern-Klug, M., & Schultz, S. K. (2010). Dementia, goals of care, and personhood: A study of surrogate decision makers' beliefs and values. American Journal of Hospice & Palliative Care, 1-11.  DOI:  10.1177/1049909109358660

This article's only reference to political correctness occurs in a statement from one of the patients who were evidently interviewed as part of a study.  That statement says, "He’s very much not politically correct and that upsets my one brother."  No context is provided.  It is not clear whether the lack of political correctness in that instance upsets the brother because the brother, himself, is a member of a group to whom disparaging reference is made, or whether it is just that the brother prefers for people to use politically correct terminology.

Gilborn, D. (2010). The white working class, racism and respectability: Victims, degenerates and interest-convergence. British Journal of Educational Studies, 58(1), 3-25.

I was not able to access the full text of this article.  The abstract makes no references to political correctness.

Ashbolt, A. (2010, January 18). Time for a real education revolution.  The Drum: Unleashed.  

"Politically correct" does not appear in the article.  It appears only in one reader's comment, as follows:
What the parents really need is a huge dose of reality. They also probably need parenting classes so that they can understand their responsibility concerning the raising of their children. School is there to give the children an academic education, not one in morality, or responsibility,, that is the parents responsibility.
Um I know that this is not politically correct to say things like this in anymore in Australia, but Huh,,, I don't live there anymore.
I emphasize with all the teachers in Australia. You certainly have a hard job to do, and I for one would never teach in Australia. Too bloody hard to deal with all the Ps and Qs.
Time to stop politically corrupting Australia's children.
This reader’s view seems to be that political correctness discourages people from saying that parents should play a greater role in teaching their children orality or responsibility.  This use of the term seems to emphasize the “speak no evil” aspect of political correctness, without involving any sorts of disadvantaged people.

Liddell, G. J., Liddell, P., & Shaffer, D. (2010). Is Obama black? The pseudo-legal definition of the black race: A proposal for regulatory clarification generated from a historical sociopolitical perspective. The Scholar: St. Mary's Law Review on Minority Issues, 12, 213.

This article mentions “politically correct” one time, as follows:
The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is the federal agency responsible for developing guidelines for the collection of data and recordkeeping concerning race in federal programs. . . . In its background statement, the OMB clarifies: "The [racial] categories represent a social-political construct designed for collecting data on the race and ethnicity of broad population groups in this country, and are not anthropologically or scientifically based." . . . The OMB guidelines state: "Terms such as 'Haitian' or 'Negro' can be used in addition to 'Black or [African-American].'"  In this statement, the OMB recognizes "race" as a sociopolitical construct, rather than a scientifically based construct for which many, including the American Anthropological Association, have argued.  It is also interesting to note that the definition treats "Haitian" as synonymous with "Black," "African-American," and "Negro."  This inclusion certainly leaves one querying as to what other geographical groupings might obtain their own politically correct moniker.
Without researching the background materials identified in footnotes (not shown in the quote), it appears that, for some reason, the OMB used racial categories of a sociopolitical nature, as distinct from racial categories that would be scientifically based.  It is not clear who is being referred to, in the statement about using “Terms such as ‘Haitian’ or ‘Negro.’”  It does not appear that the definition treats Haitian as synonymous with Black; it appears, rather, that OMB is assuming that Haitians are black.  What the final sentence seems to be saying is that OMB also assumes that Haitians are African-American.  It is not clear, from the limited amount of material supplied, whether that is an accurate interpretation of OMB.  Assuming it is, the last sentence seems to mean that OMB does not consider Haitian a race, and therefore treats Haitians as members of the race that is variously called Black, African-American, or Negro.  The authors thus seem to be musing that perhaps people from other geographical locations like Haiti will be assumed to be black as well, and thus will be likewise lumped in as Black, African-American, or Negro.  It would not be politically incorrect to call someone Haitian; the argument seems to be that the alleged African-American race is an admittedly sociopolitical category, chosen for its political correctness rather than for its scientific accuracy or logic.  In this reading, the authors use “politically correct” to mean terminology that almost nobody will complain about, even that terminology is scientifically nonsensical.

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At this point, I ran out of time for this project.  And it was probably just as well.  While some of these articles had given me some very interesting perspectives on disabilities and political correctness, most did not seem to link the two in any meaningful way.  I decided, in other words, that I could probably get more insight from a different search.

My interpretations of these articles (that is, of the portions of these articles that I glanced at) could be summarized as follows:

Turner.  Political correctness is something that teachers hide behind, to avoid offending anyone.  It discourages frank and open exchanges in the classroom.  As such, it treats disabilities and other minority statuses as something alien, dangerous, or otherwise not to be grappled with.  Teachers need to encourage students to address such topics.

Mohideen & Mohideen.  Political correctness generates an endless supply of new terms that non-native teachers of English must struggle to keep up with.  They will not always succeed at that.  They are therefore apt to remain somewhat outdated in the terms they use to refer to disability.  The purpose of these various new terms is to euphemize the low-class and discriminatory ways that unsophisticated people speak.  As such, the generation of political correct terminology disadvantages socioeconomically inferior people in English-speaking countries as well.  Discriminatory ways of speaking are discouraged, at least in part, because they offend people, but any term can be used offensively.  A focus on politically correct terminology appears to distract attention from a more readily transferred concern with actual fairness and sensitivity.

Perlstein.  Political correctness can impair humor, at times when humor would help.

Kendler.  Political correctness means saying something that sounds good, like “all men are created equal,” even if it not literally true.

Ashbolt.  A reader feels that political correctness means not saying anything that will offend anyone.

Liddell et al.  Political correctness means using terminology that sounds good or familiar, even if it does not make sense in the particular circumstances.

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Concluding Reflections

I was surprised that people were so negative about political correctness.  I probably should not have been.  It had not occurred to me that, by this time, the term was pretty much owned by people who are not happy with the directions or at least the excesses of culturally sensitive speech – aside from the occasional non-native English speaker who may not be catching some important nuances in this sort of discussion.

One concern, for people who are interested in the terms used to refer to disability, is that their selection of terms will be perceived, by a potentially large portion of their audience, as more of the same – more politically correct novelties, to be picked up and used in more or less the same way as the terms that people were using before.

My learning continues.  But by way of a progress report, at this point I am surprised that this sort of thing has been allowed to consume so much of the attention of disability advocates.  Possibly what is really happening, in all this, is that new terms have the advantage of being more likely to be heard and adopted by younger people and by those for whom it is important to be in the vanguard of “new” developments.  Maybe changing concepts of disability (or of other minority statuses) are brought into the mainstream for the purpose (or at least with the effect) of sidelining people who are older and/or less in-touch with such developments – by putting them, in other words, into a position in which their views and ways of speaking can be marginalized.

Presently, I am not sure how having a disability is fundamentally different from having a handicap.  I understand that "handicap" -- as a term, as distinct from a condition -- can be offensive because of its associations with past injustices.  At the same time, though, it is common, and it does not seem terribly important, that we still have, and refer to, "handicapped" parking spaces.  Younger people, with or without disabilities, are not necessarily familiar or concerned with the old battles in which "handicapped" and "disabled" really did make a difference.

In other words, at some point there does not seem to be a lot to be gained by just substituting one term for another.  At a certain point, the effort might be better spent in educating oneself and others on how a handicap is, as in golf, something that you start with, not necessarily where you end up.  In that sense, I would think that “handicap” would imply something less permanent and more surmountable than “disability,” which seems to mean that the ability just ain’t there, period.

If we are not just replacing one term with another that means more or less the same thing, but are instead switching to substantially more precise language, that’s different.  “Disabled” is not as clear as “learning disabled” or “developmentally disabled.”  But that, from what I can tell, is not what generates dissatisfaction with politically correct disability-related terminology.