disability and kairotic spaces


terministic screens

inclusive language

safer spaces


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elizabeth brewer » community » inclusive language

Inclusive language

One of the terministic screens that is currently being debated is the very term mental illness. There is growing dissatisfaction with the term mental illness from consumer/survivor/ex-patient activists and disability studies scholar–activists because of its medical model approach and the dominance it has. David Oaks, the director of the activist group, MindFreedom International This link goes to an external page, argues This link goes to an external page that replacing the term mentally ill with something else would

show we are at the very least trying to listen to psychiatric survivors (like me!) who have strong preferences for what we call them,…show we are trying to include a wide diversity of perspectives, including those who have often been excluded because of the current dominant paradigm in mental health,…[and] show we are trying to care. (2012)

The benefits of using terminology other than mental illness, which I model in this section by using the term psychiatric disability, address the goal of welcoming diverse perspectives.

Oaks is far from the only person advocating for terminology other than mental illness. A discussion thread from the Disability Studies in the Humanities listserv in March 2011 opened up a conversation about the range of language used to name psychiatric disability. The discussion led members of the list to identify their preferred terms for psychiatric disability, showing a variety of terms that were all supported for different reasons.

Disabled people
Disability of the mind or bodymind
Mental and physical disabilities              
Mental disability   
Mental illness
Neuro-cognitive and affective disabilities
Personality disorder
Psychiatric disability
Psychosocial disability

While I am not advocating here that we as compositionists and rhetoricians use one term over another (I use psychiatric disability for the way it suggests that mental difference and distress are cross-disability issues and for the way it suggests that psychiatry can be a disabling force), I am suggesting that we become aware of and value the many frameworks and phrases that people use beyond the biomedical term of mental illness. Oaks says in his article that the call to stop saying mental illness “is not about opposing the medical model, or any other particular model.” Instead, he is in favor of more ways of talking about experience.

I am suggesting that we take seriously that the terms we use can have exclusionary power in our classrooms. How we talk about psychiatric disability when we read through the disability services statement on our syllabi, whether or not we mention the campus counseling center, and what we might lightly refer to as “insane” all send messages about how welcome a space our classrooms are for psychiatrically disabled people. Kathryn M. Plank and Stephanie V. Rohdieck (2007) suggested that when we work “on the premise that there is no ‘neutral,’ we can analyze how our identities and cultural context have an impact on our language, on what we value and make visible in our courses, and on the interactions in our classrooms” (p. 5). We know that the terms we use to refer to mental illness are being debated, so thinking about the ways that our language has the power either to exclude or to welcome others is important. This is especially important because we are often unaware of whether our students identify as having a psychiatric disability, unless they tell us. Making a commitment to using inclusive language can contribute to making our classrooms safer spaces for students.

I realize that changes in language may seem like a fundamentally different undertaking than making accommodations along the lines of extended time for completing assignments, or working with interpreters. But our language reflects our attitudes toward disability, just as the built environment does. We can make strides toward inclusion in multiple ways, and changing our language is just one of them. If we opt for phrases other than mental illness, our language serves as a welcome sign, so to speak, saying that we expect to have psychiatrically disabled people in our institutions and we expect to work with them.