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Time to avoid idioms that mock disabilities

Wed, 10/10/2018 - 11:45 -- geeta.nair

We must stop the casual use of phrases like ‘turning a blind eye’ and ‘paralysed economy’

In our day-to-day interactions, we come across words and phrases like ‘turning a blind eye’; ‘falling on deaf ears’; ‘a paralysed economy’; ‘institutions running on crutches’; and ‘mute leadership’. What is common among these is that they all signify negative connotation, while referring to physically disabled people.

The normalisation of such terms is not a coincidence — there is a sociological reason behind their genesis and usage. Apathy on the part of society towards people with disabilities has led to these terms becoming commonplace, to such an extent that no one bats an eyelid while using them.

Further, the society easily derives certain meanings out of these words. For instance, ‘turning a blind eye’ and ‘falling on deaf ears’ signify ignorance. ‘Paralysed economy’ implies that the economy is in a bad or unwanted situation, while ‘institutions running on crutches’ refers to dysfunctional or powerless institutions.

An undesirable state

A microscopic analysis of such words and phrases reveals that they all point to a person, an institution, or a country itself being in an undesirable or disappointing state. One also wonders whether there exist in the dictionary equivalent terms conveying the same meaning and, if yes, why the use of those alternative terms is not explored. Or, is it simply considered acceptable that a large section of society wants to use these words and phrases because it thinks that they best convey the gravity of the situation?

These terms, many of them used by people without giving a second thought on their possible implications, reduce the discourse of disability to a narrative giving an impression of the disabled being in an unwanted, undesirable or powerless state.

This habit of reducing the disabled to the dysfunctional is not unique to the English language. Hindi has even more demeaning idioms which have been in use since ages. For instance, andhon ke desh mein kaana raja (‘in the land of the blind, the one-eyed person is the king’) and andha baante revdi, phir-phir apnon ko de (‘a blind person favours only his own friends and relatives while distributing a valuable item’) are idioms using the example of the physically disabled to convey a larger meaning. While the first one says that among a group of foolish people, even someone with a meagre amount of intelligence is considered clever, the second means that an undeserving person will only think about his own loved ones if he finds something useful.

In the first case, disability is, in a rather cunning way, equated to foolishness while in the second instance, it is considered synonymous with nepotism.

If one gives these idioms a rethink, one finds that the same ideas could have been expressed in a less humiliating manner — but from the way they are used, they end up mocking the disabled through their usage. As a result, our society only associates emotions like hatred, pity and ignorance with people with disabilities.

Languages reveal many important things about the mindset of the speakers. Hence, it is high time the usage of such words, phrases and idioms is stopped and, instead, people become more conscious and careful. It is high time we challenge the socially accepted norms which, in practice, prove to be anti-disabled.

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