From the January 2016 issue of The Rotarian
Michael Scannell, a small-business consultant and past president of the Rotary Club of North Reading, Mass., is a lifelong wheelchair user, and he’s tired of hearing well-meaning people describe someone with a disability as “crippled,” “deformed,” or worse. A proud supporter of Rotary’s fight to end polio, Scannell, who has cerebral palsy, works to raise awareness around language that hurts instead of heals.
THE ROTARIAN: What was it like growing up using a wheelchair in the ’60s and ’70s?
MICHAEL SCANNELL: The word “cripple” came into my world as a derogatory slur very early. Kids can be so unfair. But they don’t pick up language out of the air. They had to have heard someone else describe me that way, probably their parents: “Oh, it’s that crippled kid from down the street.” Back then, if you saw someone in a wheelchair you were automatically supposed to pity them. Wheelchair equaled nursing home equaled dead.
Instead, my parents had exactly the same expectations for me that they had for my siblings. If you see a curb cut or an elevator in a school, it’s because of my parents and people like them. For example, I was not allowed to go to first grade because the school was not accessible, and there was no law yet that said it had to be. Instead, every day, a local teacher drove to my house and taught me. By second grade, my parents convinced the school that I belonged with the other kids.
My high school was not accessible in any way, either. A teacher had to carry me up two flights of stairs every day. So my family sued the school, and it had to make thousands of dollars’ worth of changes. By the time the renovations were made, I was a sophomore in college, so it wasn’t for me; it was for the next person coming down the line.
TR: What do you want people to realize about the language that’s used to describe someone with a disability?
MS: I honestly don’t think anybody, especially Rotarians, is trying to be hurtful in any way. But they should know that there’s a possibility they’re hurting someone with their language. You’re a woman. What if people routinely referred to you as being “a victim of womanhood”? Or “suffering from womanhood”? Or “confined to womanhood”?
That kind of attitude is called able-ism, like sexism or racism. I run into it all the time. Listen, I’m not “afflicted.” I’m not a “victim” of anything. “Wheelchair-bound”? No, I’m a wheelchair user. It’s a tool. Do you wear glasses or contacts? Then you use a tool. That’s what a wheelchair is. I want people to think of me as a person first.
TR: How does this pertain to Rotary’s fight against polio?
MS: The way to talk about people with polio is to humanize them more, not less. You don’t make them pitiable. You want your listeners to think of these people as like us, rather than as alien to us. It’s a much more powerful message. People don’t want to be described as “twisted bodies.” They’re people who have thoughts and feelings, and you need to respect them. Sympathy is always condescending; empathy is always good.