Saturday, September 21, 2013

Using Accessible Language

The social model of disability asserts that society is the primary contributing factor in disabling people because of the barriers society places (purposefully or inadvertently). Disability rights activists fight to remove these barriers. As such, disability rights activists talk a lot about accessibility. Activists fight for accessibility to buildings and venues for people who use wheelchairs. Blind disability activists fight for blogs and emails to be written in plain text so that the words are accessible to them and can be read aloud by their computer programs. Etc, etc.

Lately I've felt that one area of accessibility that isn't talked about enough is accessible language. By accessible language, I mean using language that is accessible (understandable, graspable) by everyone regardless of disability status. Of course we know that Autism is a disability that affects communication. Autistic people often communicate differently, and we often comprehend and use language in atypical or uncommon ways.

One area that this impacts is the area of sarcasm and irony. By and large, Autistic people are literal people. This doesn't mean that we think sarcasm is bad; we just typically don't get it. This also doesn't mean that we don't use it. I use sarcasm frequently. I think it can be really funny and can be a clever way to get a point across. But when I am being sarcastic, I always try to make it clear that I'm not being literal. However, for the most part, I don't understand other peoples' usage of sarcasm. When I know someone really really well, I'm okay at picking up their sarcasm (usually). But when the average person uses sarcasm, my automatic reflex is to take all their language literally, so I get confused. This confusion can lead to feeling upset, because it can be really upsetting to not know what's going on or to not understand what someone is meaning.

I tend to just let people know upfront that I don't get sarcasm. I don't ask them to refrain from using it around me; I just let them know that I'll probably ask for clarifications a lot. There are some people who communicate sarcastically almost exclusively. I usually just choose to not hang around or befriend those people, because it's too hard to decode what they're saying. Which is fine. People can be as sarcastic or ironic as they want, and I have the freedom to decide whether or not I want to be around sarcastic people.

However, if someone is giving a presentation, lecture, or talk that is advertised as being open to everyone, I feel very strongly that their language should be accessible to everyone. This means that they should choose to use language that can be understood and comprehended by people who have disabilities that affect language and communication. What does this mean? It means that they should err on the side of using literal, straightforward language, OR if they choose to use sarcasm, they should make it clear that they're being sarcastic, and they should explain their sarcasm as necessary.

I'm writing this post because recently I got together with a friend who told me about a mental health talk he gave on a college campus. This talk was advertised as being open to all students, staff, and faculty. Everyone was welcome to come and listen. It sounds like it was a good talk. It addressed various mental health issues that I think are important. I'm glad this friend gave this talk. Mental health awareness is a good thing. But what isn't a good thing is that he used heavy doses of sarcasm in his talk and power point slides. What's an even worse thing is that he assumed that people were going to understand that he was being sarcastic. He even said as much to me. He said, "When people saw this one particular slide, of course they knew I was being sarcastic. How could they not? It was obvious." This upset me, because had I been at his talk, I can almost guarantee you that I would NOT have assumed he was being sarcastic. I would have been confused, which likely would have lead to me feeling upset and lost. When I pointed this out to him in a subtle, "dude, your ableism is showing" kind of way, he brushed me off and didn't seem to care. 

This was distressing to me, because he's usually such a good ally. He's not usually ableist, and I usually don't have to call him on his allistic (neurotypical) privilege. But this sarcasm thing was one thing he just wasn't willing to let go. Frustrating. Really frustrating. I couldn't understand why he couldn't see that he was contributing to the social model of disability by not making his language accessible. It just didn't seem like a hard thing to change, and I'm pretty sure that when you make your language accessible to all, you make it much more powerful. Shouldn't he have wanted that?


  1. Hmmmmm tricky. I love how you wrote about freedom on both sides. You are right seems unjust to give a public speech that could be potentially insulting your audience. ;( sigh
    You call people on allistic behaviour? I've never heard of that before? Do people get it? Honestly sometimes I wish to call people on their ableism but don't think to or how to do it... Good for you! I need to take some tips!
    And great post. It really gave me a lot of food for thought. I always appreciate and look forward to your writing!;)

    1. K, it wasn't that it was necessarily insulting, and I wouldn't have been insulted by the things he said per se. But I would've felt excluded, because he used certain language based on the assumption that everyone there was allistic/NT, and would therefore be able to understand his non-literal language. I don't think that's a fair assumption to make, and certainly an ableist one. It just really rubbed me the wrong way when he said, "of COURSE everyone would know I was being sarcastic!" and then when I said, "well I wouldn't have", he totally just brushed me off. :/

      I occasionally call people out when they're being blind to their allistic/NT privilege and when their blindness to privilege is causing them to be ableist. I do this rarely. I typically don't call people out on specific behaviors, unless they're doing or saying something that is blatantly discriminatory. (I don't hang out with many people who do blatantly discriminatory things.) I spoke up to this friend because like I said, he's been a good ally in the past, and I thought he would appreciate my feedback. I was wrong. :/ But sometimes people do get it. Or at the very least, it makes them THINK. And hopefully that thinking leads to more equality-based words and behaviors.

      I'm going to ponder this a bit more and then I'll try to write a post addressing when and how to call people on their ableism. I think it's definitely something that needs to be talked about more!


Thank you for taking the time to share your words with me. You are so Valued.