Oppression is about taking power away from someone, but that restriction or taking of power can be unintended. It can also come from bad cultural habits that seem subtle such as the language we use. The way we talk about a person or population has an impact and it describes assumption about a person. These assumptions can sometimes undermine the power that they have by undermining their equality and abilities.
Something that I have learned is that words matter, and that applies to more than persons who have different abilities. This also applies when talking about difference generally, whether that difference is national origin, ethnicity, race, language, sexual orientation or identification and any number of other categories. Words matter even when there is no particular reason why. I remember once, in school, a guidance counselor was shuffling their papers and files, as I sat in the chair and waited. He then said “Here you are!” and held up the folder. I remember this action making me cringe. I was actually right in front of him, and not inside the folder. Whatever was inside of that folder could not possibly compare to what I can simply tell him. When we use words to describe people inappropriately, we are making them into objects that distort our understanding of who they really are.
I definitely had some understanding as well as misconceptions regarding how we use language to describe people. On one hand I knew that the use of negative words to describe a group or an individual from that group was ignorant. Even a referential phrase, such as “you people”, is ignorant. On the other hand, I thought it was just a matter of using the right words, or choosing the words that a group might use in their self-identification. I thought it was as simple as saying transgendered instead of transsexual or African American instead of any number of words that has been used to describe the population. I realize now that it is not just the words that are used, but whether they are used to take away the humanness of a person. When a person says “That girl is Special Ed” they are taking away her humanness, and exchanging it for her characteristic. As it says in the presentation, machines function while people live. The way that we describe people can limit our understanding that they are living and breathing human beings.
Something else which caught my attention was an item in the list of things that those people who are “temporarily abled” have the ability to do, and that was “8. I can do well in a challenging situation without being told what an inspiration I am”. I had typically thought about equality, particularly equality of persons who are differently abled, as being “nice”, or not being negative. This item made me realize that it is so much greater than a negative or positive experience, but rather it is about every experience being distorted to a great degree with reference to that issue.
When we limit our understand of a person as a living and breathing human being, this leads to the person and those around them also limiting their understanding of the person as a living and breathing human being. Once that has been accomplished it is easy to limit their power and say in the world, even over themselves. This is the source of oppression in so many cases.
Learning about this affects my view of the world in two ways, because I will be more careful about the way I describe someone’s characteristics, but I will also be listening more carefully to how words are used in relation to myself and the people I care about.