For Vulnerable Groups and Minorities, Naming is to Claim One’s Identity

> Posted by Joshua Goldstein, Principal Director for Economic Citizenship & Disability Inclusion, CFI
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Last week my colleague Sonja Kelly and Bancomer’s Ruben Marquez highlighted the importance of the cultural contexts of words that are used in financial services (e.g. the impact of using the word for saving instead of keeping in Mexico). This got me thinking about the consequences of the words we use as names for social groups, and where these names originate.

There is a consensus among disabled people in the English-speaking world today that person with disability is the preferred term when describing a member of their community and how they would like the non-disabled to refer to them. A couple of decades ago disabled person was preferred – for example, 1983-1992 was the United Nations Decade of Disabled Persons.

This is not a pedantic fuss over nothing, as it might at first blush seem. It goes right to the heart of establishing a positive identity for a downtrodden minority. The proper term is currently being worked out in Hindi – and perhaps in many other languages around the world – where persons with disabilities are just now insisting on their rights to full participation in civil society.

Note that personhood is emphasized in the phrase person with disability, while the condition of disability is a modifier. This makes it far less obnoxious than the reductive nomenclature of the handicapped, the incapacitated, the spastic, the invalid, etc., where the perceived otherness of the condition of disability is emphasized over shared humanity.

And these are mild and even well-meaning monikers compared to such hurtful schoolyard taunts as imbecile, crip, moron, and freak that children use so often.

While how to address the disabled person in English seems resolved (i.e. “I have a friend John who is a person with a disability”), how to address a disabled person in Hindi is not.*

Mridu R.Goel, chairperson of the highly regarded Indian disability organization HANDICARE explained last month that the two Hindi words with wide usage, including by the government and the media – aksham and nishakt – are not acceptable to persons with disabilities. Aksham is defined as a person who cannot do anything, or is generally incapable. Nishakt is a person who doesn’t have strength or vigour. In a survey HANDICARE conducted several years ago it was found that of the 700 polled individuals, only one person was in favor of using the word aksham to address a person with a disability.   

Goel indicates that the term viklang jan appears to be more appropriate and HANDICARE is comfortable with it rather than aksham or nishakt. The emphasis is on jan – i.e. person – while viklang means disabled or physically handicapped. Viklang alone should not be used as it’s an adjective, and one should never be addressed by an adjective, Goel explains.

The debate urgently awaits resolution in India.

To understand the importance of this struggle over the name for disability in India, we need look no further than Black America (1960’s usage) where wrestling the naming rights away from the oppressive white majority has been important  for African Americans (21st century usage) in their three century long quest to achieve self-respect and human rights.

That their identity was not defined by the ruling majority as inferior, apelike, or even 3/5th humans (as African American slaves were categorized at the 1787 Constitutional Convention), was a vexing challenge that in time was overcome by determined “re-branding.”

By naming itself, the community is staking a claim to itself — that it owns “title” to its own identity. Of course, the community has to settle on what that name should be, which is not always easy and may evolve through time, as we saw in the 1960’s during the protracted civil rights movement, when Negro, black, and Afro-American were all title contenders. (In the 19th century there was also a struggle over names for the African American community but there is no time to go into that here.)

To give a flavor of this debate, I found a great article by Lerone Bennett, Jr. in a 1967 issue of Ebony magazine, a popular magazine for a primarily black readership. He writes how one group contends that the word Negro is an inaccurate epithet perpetuating the master-slave mentality in the minds of both black and white Americans, while just as large yet less vocal of a group views Negro as equally accurate and euphonious as the words black and Afro-American. Of this latter group, Bennett describes, “This group is scornful of the premises of the advocates of change. A Negro by any other name, they say, would be as black and as beautiful–and as segregated. The times, they add, are too crucial for Negroes to dissipate their energy in fratricidal strife over names.”

Black won in the 1960’s. Today African American prevails, and tomorrow who knows. But the point is that naming is up to the community; it is not for outsiders to decide. Demanding the right to name oneself is a big step towards achieving a measure of self-love and a small step on the road towards achieving equality in civil society.

(Of course many other American minorities, like Irish, Italians, Jews, gays, and lesbians had and continue to have struggles of their own in this regard.)

As Indians with disabilities continue their struggle to determine the right Hindi word (or words) for their community, and as countless other social groups continue to do the same, we should remind ourselves, based on our own and our neighbors’ histories, that this is far from a trivial matter: it is an important, perhaps indispensable ingredient in the struggle of an oppressed minority to own its destiny.

*It would be very interesting to know from our readers what is happening in other cultures and their languages in terms of developing terms for disability that are respectful and widely adopted.

Image credit: Mark Daffey / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images

Have you read?

Attitudes toward Persons with Disabilities in Indian Microfinance Institutions

Combatting Exclusion for Persons with Disabilities in India and Mexico

Including LGBTs in Financial Services