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Letter to the editor: Perspectives on physical ability

Scott Porter ’80 commented online on The S&B’s article titled “’Disability as Identity Panel to Start Conversations,” and gave The S&B permission to run his comment as a Letter to the Editor.

This is interesting and proves perspective is important. I am very glad that current students feel well-served.

I became a paraplegic (from the chest down — for the persons trained in the medical fields — a lesion at T4) a number of years after graduating from Grinnell. Just as de Tocqueville could explore life in America as an outsider, I approach my life after my injury as an outsider and observe what changed with my injury.

One observation changed my word choice with a decision not to use the words “disability” or “disabled” since they just describe a conclusion. I refer to deficits, as in “I have physical deficits.” If I am disabled, by definition I am not able. I can supplement or create adaptations to overcome my deficits and still be able.

Post-injury I have travelled extensively (3 European trips representing the U.S. in marathons, and doing marathons in all 50 states and D.C. in one year, for example). So I have not let my physical deficits prevent me from being active.

After returning to campus several times post-injury, I have resolved not to attend any more on-campus alumni events as they systematically prevent my participation despite my experience and ingenuity to adapt and overcome my physical deficits.

While not discussed in the article or the panel discussion about identity, let me mention another observation about word choice which can reflect on identity. My hope is to promote deep thought about communication. Many will think the best practice is to use “person-first descriptions.” “Person first” is where we are to say and write “a person who is a paraplegic” or maybe “a person who has paraplegia,” but definitely not the simple phrase “a paraplegic” as the subject or the object for the relevant verb. The thought is that people aren’t just their diagnoses. There are other parts of their life experiences. There is a rationale (some diagnoses) where “person first” makes sense but it is in a very limited way which I won’t be explaining here, and the wholesale use of it reveals some bias (hopefully unconscious) when applied to all deficits.

The bias reveals itself as a stigmatizing construction. The “person first” construction is only used to describe what the speaker believes is a bad situation. We don’t say “a person who is a professional athlete,” “… Medical Doctor,” “… professor,” “… dean,” etc.

In most sentences the diagnosis doesn’t matter, such as: Scott, a person who is a paraplegic, can give a cogent explanation of and actual real world uses of the Object Oriented Programming concept of Polymorphism. The diagnosis in any construction is a non-sequitur.

When the diagnosis does matter is when the condition is relevant to another part of the statement. Such as: A paraplegic can’t stay at Grinnell House since there is no way to get a wheelchair into the elevator. The sentence is not any better when it is changed to: A person with paraplegia…

I now know many people with ambulatory deficits. Without the rigor of statistical analysis and research worthy of a peer reviewed journal to support my assertion, I will state my understanding that none of them worry about the “person first” formulation and are much more concerned with whether the locations they must visit have made it possible for them to get their wheelchair in the elevator. Again with the total lack of academic rigor, the people I KNOW WELL who insist on “person first” language are very invested in victimhood as opposed to living.

If you are concerned that you now can’t communicate because you don’t know whether you should use “person first” language, let me close with advice that I think can be universal. Approach all communication with respect for all. Any technical violations of word choice will be covered over by that respectful approach.

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