I am an A.D.A. You may have heard of the practice of nouning a verb (gerunds—e.g., learning, serving—very common). You may have been subjected to verbing nouns (denominalization—e.g., task you with a job, calendar an event--Benjamin Franklin said in a letter to Noah Webster that denominalization is “awkward and abominable.”). But now we are nouning the abbreviations of acts of Congress.
Language matters. It matters more than most people realize. The way we think is inextricably tied to words, and each word carries with it more than just its simple definition. Words and phrases drag along emotional baggage, innuendo, and an encoding of societal norms. That doesn’t even begin to factor in the tone of voice used, or the ethnic, class and social background of both the speaker and the hearer.
We invent new words all the time, often inadvertently. Sometimes we repurpose old words (e.g., gay), and sometimes a new word is an artifact of some other evolving societal change.
The world of disability has its own language issues. For example, having a disability is not the same as being disabled. In the first case one is describing perhaps a single malady, while in the second case you are classifying the state of the entire person. What may seem like a nuance to you may make a big difference in the way you think about the person being described; and let’s not even bring up the negative connotations of handicapped. A handicap is for golf games and horse races.
This is not original thinking on my part, nor is it conveyed in the name of political correctness. I’m not interested in participating in the new I’m Offended craze. I’m just trying to point out that the language that you use not only reflects how you think, but actually affects how you think.
This brings me to my morning commute. The Americans with Disabilities Act (A.D.A., fttps://www.ada.gov/), prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation. I catch a regular NJ Transit bus into the Port Authority Bus Terminal in NYC twice a week. The bus driver (referred to by NJT as the bus operator), takes about eight minutes to load me into the bus using a wheelchair lift. That is if the seats slide easily, the equipment works, and the operator has some facility using the equipment. Once the seats are moved to make room, my travel scooter and I occupy the space of six seats.
Every NJ Transit bus has this equipment, and there are very strict rules about how to handle the cases where this accommodation under the A.D.A. does not work right. After the operator picks me up and continues on their route, they call the pickup into their control center. When conveying this information they do not refer to me as handicapped, disabled, or a wheelchair (hey, there is a person controlling that wheelchair!). Instead they tell their dispatcher, “I have picked up an A.D.A. at Chestnut Street in Garwood.” How’s that for an invented word that carries no excessive baggage?
I find this creative and amusing. As I stated before, I’m not a willing member of the I’m Offended club, especially when the goal appears to be accuracy without giving offense.