Shifting Away from Ableist Language

This is for Blogging Against Disablism (BADD) 2016 – go read other submissions!

When, years back, I was first introduced to the concepts a) ableism, and b) ableist language, my first reaction was “How can we stopped using *all* of these words?! It’s hard.”

But when I actually tried to excise ableist words from my vocabulary … I found that it was not nearly as hard as I expected it to be.

(For those who do not know what ableism and ableist language are – ableism is to disabled people what sexism is to non-male people and racism is to people who belong to a non-socially-privileged race – here is an overview of ableist language)

I cannot speak for anybody else, but I think in my case my thought of ‘it’s hard’ was my ableist privilege telling me that I should not have to inconvenience myself for the sake of disabled people (background: I am currently perceived by society as being abled, and I can do the things which ‘abled’ people can do, which means I now have abled-privilege). Once I actually put in a effort to change the language I use, I found that, actually, it did not require that much effort on my part after all.

A key part of changing my language use was understanding why I was changing it. I got the ‘why’ from many insightful writings by disabled people about their experiences, including many essays from previous years of BADD.

Before I go into the next part, I want to make something crystal clear – if the ONLY benefit of avoiding ableist language (words like lame, stupid, ‘bound to a wheelchair’, etc.) was to reduce the harm which ableism does to disabled people, it would still absolutely be worth doing.

However, I have found that changing the language I use to avoid ableism had additional benefits. It has taught me to be more careful and thoughtful about my language in general, not just with regards to ableism. And the way which taking out ableist words makes me thing about what I say, I feel, makes the things I say more precise.

For example, instead of saying ‘stupid’, I can say ‘uninformed’ ‘thoughtless’ ‘reckless’ ‘uneducated’ ‘ignorant’ ‘bad at analysis’ ‘failed to make connections between the facts’ ‘ridiculous’ etc. Notice how all of those substitutes for ‘stupid’ are more precise about my meaning than using the word ‘stupid’.

Of course, choosing more precise words does take more effort than using a catch-all word. You know what a really good catch-all word for bad things is? It’s the word ‘bad’. Simple, isn’t it?

Learning that I could use the word ‘bad’ whenever I wanted to say something was bad, without needing to think about a more precise term *or* possibly hurting a group of people I did not intend to hurt, really helped me reduce my use of ableist language. Is saying that something is ‘bad’ as emphatic as a number of ableist words which indicated that something is very bad? No. But if it that important to me to convey that something is really bad, or that it is bad in some specific sense, then I can go ahead and find the precise terms I wish to use. I find that, a precise description of how bad something is often packs more of a punch than ableist language anyway.

Here is an example:

Ableist way: That movie is lame.
Precise way: The plot of that movie jumps all over the place, and the actors were totally miscast. I fell asleep after the first hour.
Simple way: That movie is bad.

So, in summary – 1) reducing the ableism in my language was not as hard as I thought it would be when I was first introduced to the concept of ableism and 2) pruning ableist words out of my vocabulary had improved my use of language in general.

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Characters with Disabilities in the Condor Trilogy

This is my submission to Blogging against Disablism Day (BADD) 2015

The Condor Trilogy (also known as the Eagle Shooting Trilogy, which is a more accurate translation of the Chinese title) is one of the most popular works of Chinese-language fiction of the 20th century, if not the most popular. The three novels are The Eagle-Shooting Heroes, The Giant Eagle and Its Companion, and The Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre. It is difficult to overstate this trilogy’s popularity in the Chinese-speaking world.

They are martial arts novels, set during the period just before the Mongol invasion of China up until the Chinese manage to drive the Mongols out (the time span is over a hundred years). Even the shortest novel in the trilogy (The Eagle-Shooting Heroes) is longer than the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, which means this trilogy is more than three times the length of Lord of the Rings.

In those thousands of pages of fictions, there are a lot of characters with disabilities. In fact, there are so many of them, and there is so much to analyze from the perspective of disability studies, that I’m not going to try to write an exhaustive post. Instead, I’m only going to discuss a few of the more significant characters with disabilities within the trilogy.

One of the main protagonists, Yang Guo, becomes disabled midway through the second novel, The Giant Eagle and Its Companion. I’ve already discussed him and his disability, as well another character with a disability, Lu Wushuang, so I won’t discuss them in this post.

So, which characters will I discuss?

Ke Zhen’e

Ke Zhen’e is the leader of the Seven Freaks of Jiangnan, a group of wandering martial artists. It is said that Ke Zhen’e became blind during a fight years before the novel, but I don’t think the novel ever says whether or not he was already the leader of the Seven Freaks at that time.

He is a capable martial artist who uses sound and the flow of air to track his opponents movements. However, he is not a superhuman martial artist – many characters in this trilogy who would beat him in a fair fight (these ARE martial arts novels), and nobody is surprised that a blind person can fight so well. Thus, he is not a supercrip.

There is one scene where the fact that he is blind leads to a different result than if he had been sighted, but other than that one scene, his blindness … doesn’t make a difference. He generally has good intentions, but sometimes his judgement is flawed. He is at times angry, happy, sad, etc. and for pretty much the same reasons as people in general. In short, his character is mostly written as someone who, by the way, is blind, rather than being written as a BLIND!person.

Miss Qu (a.k.a. Shagu)

Shǎgū litterally means ‘foolish girl’ in Mandarin. This character hears other people call her ‘shǎgū‘, so when someone asks what her name is, she says that she is ‘Shǎgū‘. Her father is Qu Lingfeng, so she can also be referred to as ‘Miss Qu’, but none of the characters know what name her parents gave her, if any.

Obviously, there was no DSM in 13th century China, so there is no ‘modern’ diagnosis of Miss Qu’s condition. As the characters in the novel say, it is not known whether she was born ‘that way’ or whether she became ‘that way’ later after an injury. So what is ‘that way’?

Miss Qu can understand spoken Chinese and speak Chinese, she has learned some martial arts (though she is not as skilled as most of the characters in the trilogy), and she lives alone at the time she makes her first appearance in the trilogy, which implies that she can take care of herself.

She does have trouble understanding abstractions, doesn’t understand complex abstractions at all, and often responds to other people’s questions with giggling, and often interprets what others say too literally. For example, when a character asks “How far away is Niujia Village from here” she replies “Here is Niujia Village, I don’t know ‘how far away'”. She does not understand social protocol, such as who is higher status and who is lower status. She also has trouble putting two and two together – for example, when Huang Rong asks Miss Qu not to say to anyone that Huang Rong is hiding, Miss Qu agrees, but later loudly asks ‘the girls who eats watermelons’ (Huang Rong) to help her. In other words, Miss Qu doesn’t figure out that Huang Rong is asking for her presence not to be revealed at all, all Miss Qu understands that she shoudn’t *say* that Huang Rong is present.

She also obsesses on things which many people would not – for example, when Huang Rong hits her in the stomach, Miss Qu is far more interested in the fact that she (Miss Qu) is NOT crying, and that Huang Rong IS crying, and is very proud of not crying when Huang Rong is crying. She is obsessed with playing and eating, which is actually pretty ordinary, but she only tries to get playtime and food by simple straightforward means, and doesn’t think through the consequences of pursuing these things.

It is so easy to take a mental shortcut and simply say “Miss Qu is very stupid”, and nearly all readers (including myself, I admit) take that shortcut since our culture has trained us to think about people that way. Actually breaking down what Miss Qu can, cannot, and does do takes much more effort.

What I find most interesting is the way that Huang Yaoshi reacts to her. Most characters treat Miss Qu like a piece of furniture – possibly useful, possibly useless, something which can be destroyed (or killed) without feeling guilt, and most of all, as something without agency. Huang Yaoshi is the exception. When he realizes that Miss Qu is the daughter of his former student, Qu Lingfeng, he immediately accepts Miss Qu as a member of his family, and treats her accordingly. If I recall correctly, he is the only character who makes a point of calling her ‘Miss Qu’ instead of ‘Shǎgū’. He also endeavours to teach her more martial arts, and even though she learns very, very slowly, he does not give up on her, or stop treating her like a family member. Most of all, he treats Miss Qu as someone who has inherent worth.

Huang Yaoshi is not a ‘nice’ guy. In fact, his nickname can be translated into English as ‘the Eastern Evil’ (though it’s more like ‘the Eastern Heretic’). He is proud of the fact that he ignores social conventions, and he sometimes uses this as a justification for doing things which most people would consider to be unethical. However, I think this is an instance where ignoring social conventions – in this case, ignoring ableism – actually leads him to behave in a more ethical manner than anyone else.

Yu Daiyan

Yu Daiyan is the most minor character I’m going to discuss here. In fact, I’m skipping some characters with disabilities who are more important than Yu Daiyan. However, I think the relationship between Yu Daiyan and his brothers (as in, students of the same teacher, not biological brothers) in the Wudang sect reflects concerns common among people with disabilities.

In The Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre, all of Yu Daiyan’s limbs are paralyzed. He is very much alive, in fact, he is alive at the end of the story. He is one of the seven apprentices of Zhang Sanfeng, and it’s often noted, both within the novel itself and by readers, how close the apprentices are to each other, and how much they care about each other.

And yet … when one of the apprentices, or maybe Zhang Sanfeng himself (I don’t remember) talks about those who have been lost/died, Yu Daiyan is included, even though he is living with the other members of the Wudang sect. Saying that Zhang Cuishan is gone/lost is fair enough since he disappeared without a trace for ten years. Yu Daiyan? Not so much. I give the people of Wudang credit for taking care of Yu Daiyan, but it’s pretty clear that they think that having all of one’s limbs paralyzed is equivalent, or almost equivalent, to being dead.

Later in The Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre, one character discovers a possible ‘cure’ for Yu Daiyan’s condition. The people of Wudang are all very excited about the possibly of a cure except … wait for it … Yu Daiyan himself. Yu Daiyan himself thinks that his limbs have been paralyzed for twenty years, and that his life has been okay, and that he doesn’t have much to gain by being ‘cured’. I find it interesting that the people of Wudang, who supposedly have such great camaraderie, have so little insight into Yu Daiyan’s thoughts and feelings.

Ouyang Feng

Near the end of The Eagle-Shooting Heroes, one of the major characters, Ouyang Feng, loses the ability to distinguish reality and what is happening in his own imagination. He also loses the ability to understand many of his own memories. He is convinced that his own shadow is ‘Ouyang Feng’ and wants to hurt him, thus he runs from his own shadow.

Again, there is no DSM in the story, so there is no ‘modern’ diagnosis for Ouyang Feng’s condition.

This is an example of the trope of ‘mentally ill = evil’ being subverted.

In The Eagle-Shooting Heroes, Ouyang Feng is one of the main villains, at least before his mental breakdown. However, in The Giant Eagle and His Companion, he is actually … well, based on his behavior at least, he’s one of the good guys. He takes in an orphaned boy and teaches him some martial arts, which save that boy’s life at a latter time. Granted, he did this because he thought the boy was his own son, but there was still kindness in the act, and the boy is grateful for this adoption. Some of the ‘good’ characters end up abandoning this same vulnerable orphaned boy. Besides this, Ouyang Feng stops scheming to hurt people after his mental breakdown. It’s a rare fictional example of a mentally-ill person behaving in a more ethical manner than they did before they became mentally ill.

General Remarks

First of all, I do not want to suggest that this trilogy is 0% ableist. There is some ableism in the trilogy, though I do not think it is ableist on the level of, say, The Secret Garden.

Second, other novels by the same writer (Jin Yong) also have quite a few characters with disabilities. However, even though you would think that martial arts novels would be full of characters who became disabled through all of the violence which happens in martial arts fiction, Jin Yong is actually unique among martial arts writers in this respect. Martial arts novels by other writers tend to feature fewer significant characters with disabilities, and when they do, they are much more inclined to invoke ableist stereotypes, such as ‘disabled = evil’, or to simply make the characters with disabilities mere caricatures.

(Sadly, Chinese culture can be very ableist)

However, I want to see the cup as half full, at least for now. This trilogy offers a lot for people who examine disability in fiction to analyze – I just scratched the surface. And, though I admit I’m not an expert on ‘Jinology’ (the study and analysis of Jin Yong novels), I have done some Jinology reading, and have yet to find any analysis which focuses on disability in Jin Yong novels. If you know of any such analysis (it’s okay if it’s in Chinese) please let me know!

My Favorite BADD 2012 Posts

Earlier this month, I participated in Blogging Against Disablism Day 2012 (you can read my entry here). There are so many wonderful posts that it is truly humbling. I almost feel unworthy to have my post among such insightful pieces.

Though I took my time about it, I have finally read all of the BADD 2012 posts. It is very difficult to pick the best posts, and if you have time I urge you to read all of them. That said, some posts made more of an impression on me than others. So I share with you the posts which taught me the most, or were the most moving, or were, in my much humbled opinion, the best written. They are in the order they appear in on the BADD main page.

Benefit Scrounging Scum: Do You Know What You’re Asking?
Restless Hands: On Self-Injury, Autism, and Behavioral Therapy
Bethlehem Blogger: What ‘Retards’ Have Taught Me About Peace Work and People
Square 8: Connecting Dots
Single Lens Reflection: Clippity Cloppity Goat and the Troll
Ballastexistenz: Caregiver Abuse Takes Many Forms
AutistLiam: It Gets Inside Our Heads by
Ask a Wheeler: Assumptions About Disability
Ballastexistenz: Pulling Back Curtains
Never That Easy: My Years of Magical Thinking
Thoughts of Nothing: Living With Chronic Back Pain
Gilded Cage: The Myth of Survival of the Fittest