The Greeks understood the power of language but misconstrued its true potential. They feared the use of specific words would upset the Gods and bring bad luck. Hence, throughout history, euphemisms exerted themselves, softening the blow of linguistic realities. When a Roman general committed suicide, it was said that he ‘fell on his sword’. The condition of shellshock, when a soldier’s nervous system gives way under pressure, became the highly jargonized and emotionless ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder’. Government death squads no longer killed people, they ‘neutralized’ individuals. The examples are endless.

Of course, it was not long before people with disabilities were euphemized to ‘differently-abled’ and variations like ‘specially-abled’ and even ‘handi-capable’. It is not exactly clear when this shift occurred, but many point to the late 1960s, when the Special Olympics were initiated.

Reinforcing stigma

People became convinced that disability was a bad word, an insensitive term of reference. However, the most profound impact of this linguistic shift was the reinforcement of stigma around disabilities. Even scientific studies and media focus on disabilities diminished as the millennium approached, likely an attempt to avoid controversies. Before we knew it, we found ourselves decades behind in our understanding of neurodivergence and disabilities. In the meantime though, society has grown more complex and sophisticated, catering to the needs of the neurotypical while carefully tip-toeing around those of the neurodivergent.

There is a silver lining in this seemingly bleak scenario. The fact that linguistic choices can create large cultural shifts is not a bad thing. This means that the extremely accessible tool of language can be used by the common man to initiate mass changes in the societal landscape.

The etymology

Let’s look at the etymology of the word ‘disability’. It reveals the foundational manner in which such conditions have been integrated on a social level. The word first came into usage in the 1570s, and literally translates to a lack of power, strength or faculty. The prefix of the word, ‘dis-‘, indicates the “lack of”, “opposite of”, and even “apart, asunder”. The word might seem harsh but it reveals the truth of how utterly unfit existing socio-cultural infrastructure and systems are when it comes to meeting the needs of persons with disabilities. In effect, the word surmises all the inefficiencies and biases that make modern society a difficult and challenging place for people with disabilities.

The covering up of this revelatory framework of meaning with vague soft words hides the true underlying problem, the systemic problem.

By using language that is fact-informed, we, as the common man and woman, can initiate localized shifts in perception, which in turn holds the potential of large scale paradigm-shifts. Let us reclaim our right to linguistic clarity so that the truth is not buried under the soft layers of ignorance.

The writer is Founder & CEO of The Sarvodya Collective