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Friday, 22 June 2012

Ableist Language and People Who Should Know Better

I have some thoughts on ableist language today.
A few years back, I took a Pharmacology class to help me to understand the medications that I'd be working with as a support person and the issues around properly assisting people to take those medications. It was an interesting course, taught by a Registered Nurse. I learned a great deal.

The section on anti-depressants was basically review for me. I'd been on anti-depressants on and off since I was 14, and spoken to many, many people who took them. I was interested to hear what the teacher had to say, but I was thinking that I'd get to relax a little bit. The course had been pretty fast-paced up until then.

All thoughts of relaxing went out the window after the teacher's introduction: "We all have whacko thoughts from time to time, but for some people it crosses the line into something more serious."

I put up my hand and suggested that perhaps there was a better word to use than "whacko", and she kind of shrugged and went on with the lesson. I quietly seethed. I didn't know the term "ableist" back then, but apparently I could recognize it.  And I can definitely recognize "ableist" today.

June 26: "Dr. Oz" Does Ableist Language

The things that bothered me the most about the "whacko" comment was that it came from a medical professional who should know better, and who should be setting an example as an educator. So you can understand why I'd be upset when I saw the promos for "Normal or Nuts" next week (June 26) on the daytime health awareness show hosted by Dr. Mehmet Oz.

The premise appears to be that a person describes a behaviour, habit or fear, there's some talk among Oz and a group of professionals brought in for the episode, and each professional holds up a sign: "Normal" or "Nuts".  It seems that several people are "assessed" over the course of the show.

Now, I was an English major for a painful semester. I recognize that alliteration is a tool, yada yada yada...but when I saw the promo, I immediately thought, "There's tomorrow's blog entry. Ableist language from a doctor on national television.  Nice job, Dr. Oz."

Dr. Phil Doesn't Diagnose and He Generally Spends a Whole Hour With a Person

The "Normal or Nuts" designation implies several things:

  1. That a behaviour, habit, or fear is normal is something associated with a diagnosis, with no in-between.
  2. That a professional can make a mental health diagnosis in a couple of minutes based on limited information.
  3. That "nuts" is a bad thing and something that you don't want to be (that's the ableist part)

Ableist language around mental conditions runs rampant in our society:

  1. "That's crazy."
  2. "He's a psycho/nutjob/wingnut/whacko"
  3. "It's insane in there."
  4. "You're nuts if you believe that."

The fact that these words are so engrained into our vernacular reinforces negative stereotypes of people with mental conditions and keeps stigma alive. The fear of the stigma associated with having a mental condition keeps people from getting the help that they need.

And when individuals that people recognize as having authority, like Dr. Oz, use ableist language, they legitimize its message. It's why media figures have to be very careful with their words, and why I've never particularly cared for Oprah Winfrey. While she's undeniably done a great deal of good, I sometimes get the sense that she doesn't responsibly use the incredible amount of power that she has. I hope that Dr. Oz doesn't go the same way.

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