Ableist language could be eroding the wins of Nigerians Living with Disabilities

There are many ways the systemic exclusion and oppression of people living with disabilities manifest in everyday life. 

It is not just about public spaces being designed to make their accessibility only open to abled people but even where it is made accessible, it’s usually done as an after-thought that leaves the access partly only useful.

It is also not restricted to the reduced access to basic social necessities like education where despite having the world’s highest number of out-of-school children, Nigeria is still lacking data for how children living with disabilities fair in a culture that operates almost as though they do not exist. It runs deeper into the core of human verbal communication – language.

You may find this enlightening.

There is a lack of accurate data on the exact number of Persons Living with Disabilities in Nigeria (PLWD). The 2006 Nigerian census recorded 2.32% of the population as living with disabilities, a figure the Non-Governmental Organisation, Center for Citizens with Disabilities rightly contested. Although the Ministry of Women Affairs in 2011 updated that figure to 4.8 million, the World Health Organisation (WHO) put the figure at 19 million, which represented about 20% of the population then.

As of 2020, there are reportedly 27 million Nigerians living with some form of disability, the most common of which are visual impairment, hearing impairment, physical impairment, and intellectual impairment.

NGOs focused on advocating for the equal dignity of disabled Nigerians are doing a fantastic job at the legislative level – the passing of Nigeria’s Disability Rights Act in 2019 is one win from this tireless advocacy, but progress remains slow in changing social attitudes. Understanding language and its place in the efforts to secure the rights of the disabled is a great entry point for non-activist who desire to play a role in this advocacy.

What is ableist language?

Ableist language is, simply put; language that is either inherently or contextually offensive to persons living with disabilities. It is also language that is derogatory, abusive, or negative about disability. The systemic exclusion and oppression of PLWD persist because it is reinforced through language with no regard for how this affects the disabled.

The goal of this piece is to simply lay out some ableist words in the hope that the awareness of how the words here – far from exhaustive – adds to the already overwhelming burden of these Nigerians with special needs.

Inherently derogatory words/terms.

Some derogatory words for PLWD like ‘retard,’ ‘moron’ and ‘lame,’ have their origin in medical definitions used to describe PLWD as lesser humans. Read a history of eugenics here for context.

For example.

‘Retard.’

Mental retardation was the official term for intellectual disability from 1961, and the word has since found traction in everyday language used as an insult for people’s intellect. What normalising the use of this word in that context does – especially for people living with intellectual disability – is that it reinforces the dehumanisation of people for lacking in what neurotypical people consider the ‘right’ level of intellect deserving of human dignity.

One key thing to remember about the pitfall of ableism is that the basis for treating people with equal dignity is their very being. Dignity should not be accorded based only on ability.

Lame.’

Lame has a long history of being used to describe physical disability – a limp. It picked up a negative connotation in the 20th century – and some of this is also rooted in the eugenics medicine era.

To use lame to describe something as boring or not fun is to imply that people with difficulty walking have an inherently reduced capacity for fun. It is not the case, yet this extends to harm the quality of life of persons with disabilities.

For more comprehensive data on ableist language see here.

The take-home here shouldn’t be a baseless dread about language policing, as we see with the resistance against trans-inclusive language. It should be awareness without resistance instead – that this is how this affects this minority group, and while we may stumble in trying to be inclusive, that awareness alone is a major win for everyone. For starters.

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