30 April, 2011

about individuals

I started to write something about this two years ago but I didn't really know where I was going with it, and still don't, but (like lots of people) I find it really gross when professionals and other "allies" think that using person-first language is more important than actually not being ableist. Especially when they boss people who are actually less ableist than they are, or are actually disabled, because the person didn't use PFL.

However, something that I think is even weirder than the prescriptivism on PFL is the word "individuals." You basically only see the word individuals used about people who have committed a crime or are disabled, and a lot of the kind of people who overprioritize person-first language are the kind of people who use the word individuals. It's primarily used by professionals when they are talking about disabled people, either in specific or in general. Someone will talk about the "individual with autism" they are working with, or also you see this in a more broad way used to describe a big group of people--like a service provider might have on their website, "we serve individuals with profound disabilities."

I can't exactly put my finger on what bothers me about the word individual, but I think it's really just the fact that it only seems to be used about disabled people. I assume the decision to use a different word instead of "people" is a reaction to something, but what is it a reaction to? It sounds so alienating and medicalized--what's wrong with saying "we serve people with profound disabilities" or "I've been working with this man with autism?"

Can someone explain this to me?


  1. I never thought of the disability connection before but I never liked that word either. It's like, why can't we just be "people" (or "persons" if you want to get fancy about it)? Is being a person so bad that we need to euphemize it?

    Maybe I shouln't comment now because I'm kind of drunk (and it is possible that I missed you point) but I just wanted to say you're not alone in disliking that word.

  2. For me personally, I mainly just have a problem when we start using two different standards for how to refer to people. And I think a lot of disabled people are sort of grasping at straws because the biggest things are not the words themselves but contextual things.

    Someone told me that "gyspy" was offensive which confused me because there's someone that I used to talk to periodically online who referred to herself that way, talked about the gypsy music she played growing up, etc. So I tried to use the internet to find out and a lot of Romani people (which is the subset of "gyspy" that people are usually referring to) have all kinds of different opinions and they will say blatantly contradicting things about how or why Romani people self identify. But I got the impression that the most common view seems to be "If you talk about how we're all criminals, what a nuisance we are, etc, then we won't care what you call us because nothing will be okay."

    I think people try obfuscate things around disability and just using a particular term isn't enough to do or not do that. But it's when people won't talk about us like we're people that it gets to be a problem, and that becomes apparent in the kinds of word choices they make overall and in what they say about us. And I think even though we're as divided as Romani people are about how we would like to be referred to (a while back I saw someone on a bus yell "I'm getting off at the next stop and I'm the wheelchair," which is about as far from person first you can get), we definitely can pick up on that.

    Personally, when I'm referring to various groups of people, I almost always say "____ (adjective) people." Which is direct, straightforward, and has "people" in it. If there's not an adjective, I just pretend the noun is like an adjective. This wasn't really a concious decision but no one has complained yet. If someone told me they preferred something else I would at least do it informally, there's generally no reason not to.

  3. Mtthw where do you live? are you "drunk every day before noon" like Harry Potter?

    that's funny about the word "gypsy," because I just watched The Hunchback of Notre Dame and I HAVE A LOT OF FEELINGS (surprise surprise) but I don't want to blog about it because I know I'm going to end up ignoring the race aspects because I have read almost nothing by Romani people and don't know what to start thinking about with that aspect of the movie.

  4. LOL, no, I just graduated from college this morning and my parents and I went to a restaurant to celebrate, and I had a couple of drinks. I don't drink that much so I get drunk fairly easily. I live in Mississippi.

  5. I don't actually know a whole lot about Romani people (even the discussion about music was fairly techincal, they use arab scales apparently and quarter tones BLOW MY MIND), but the characterizations of them I've heard from europeans and tourists to europe have been almost entirely negative and fairly insulting and have always used the term gypsy." I imagine that the Romani who have the most problem with that word are the ones who refer to themselves as Romani amongst themselves (as, I understand, many of the people in their communities do) and associate the word "gyspy" almost entirely with the kinds of insults and negative stereotypes that are levied at them. The ones that don't make this kind of association are more likely to just view it as a foriegn but equivelent term that people are more likely to recognize or, if they grew up outside of Romani communities, even identify more strongly with the term "gyspy." (In terms of word choice, if you're actually talking about the Romani people specifically it's probably clearer just to say that and it probably won't upset anyone, but people won't necessarily know what you're talking about)

    And I actually think some of this is pretty similar to some of the kinds of things we run into (although I could be totally wrong with my understanding in the preivous paragraph) in that we tend to have different associations with things based on how we've seen them used.

    Saying that you watched "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is not very specific since it was origionally a novel and there have been a TON of movies and things based on it, but someone showed the disney movie to me when I was younger and from what little I can remember it had a fairly stereotyped representation but not one that was overtly hostile. But I can see about how someone might get tired of hearing about how magical and romantic they are which has kind of been their representation in popular culture when people weren't showing how dishonest and a menace they are. Even a supposedly positive representation like that still has a very strong "othering" effect.

  6. Oh by the way I don't think they actually ALL use arab scales as they created different kinds of music like everyone else, but the person I was talking to did use the "maqam" patterns.

  7. Just thinking:

    "People" might be too tribal, too communual, too congregate (the last word being used about services for individuals with disabilities).

    If you want to think about men and women apart from services, "individuals" may be one way to do it.

    I do feel funny about "persons" being used.

    The earworm in my brain was God help the outcasts and Esmeralda in church looking at the windows.

    One good book by a Romani is by Sylvester Boswell. He's an English Romani and the book was published in the 1960s.

    Another earworm is the Girlfriend song "I'm an individual/can't you see/...is exactly right for me".

    And the individual might well be in a process of becoming (fitting in) not so much of being (standing out).

    Positive representations can be othering representations too.

    The thing I remember most about Disney Notre Dame was the demonisation of the Catholic church and especially Frollo. And how one-dimensional Phoebus is. The goats and the gargoyles were fun.

    And wasn't there a non-Disney Notre Dame in black-and-white?

    The thing which got in the way of my own good instincts was probably that Notre Dame was the first Disney movie to do mass crowds in computer-aided animation, and Disney Adventures showed "how they did it" in a way which really interested/grabbed me.

    (Remembering that religion could not catch it six ways from Sunday in France at the time of the movie was set. Protestants, Catholics, Jews, everybody).

    And, yes, being magic and romantic can be very distancing.

    So with maqams, people improvise? Made me think of the bells and their changing. And there are three "families": Greek, Persian and Turkish.

    With Notre Dame: the church being a character in itself.

  8. I use "people" when I'm talking about more than one person, simply. If I use "a people" I usually mean something else but otherwise I don't make that association.

    Is the book this?

    (sheesh some of those prices are expensive)

    I've made a note of that page although I haven't been very good about reading books the last couple years.

    All this discussion of that movie makes me sort of want to see it again since I have a very different perspective than I did when I last watched it and I'd like to be able to talk about it clearly. But yeah, there were a lot of movies based off that story. Wikipedia mentions 15 different movies. Supposedly the disney one used LESS stereotypes than most of them.

    The person I talked to was from greece but I think they were the same basic patterns as the Arab ones and it was just how they were used in music that greece did differently somewhat (and greece uses the western scales pretty extensively too). Based on her discreption, I understand that it was very similar to the approach most jazz musicians take nowadays, in that we focus on things in terms of scales and learn to associate various scales with certain chords or chord progressions. she thought of it as being "in" a certain pattern, so you would just learn that pattern and the kinds of backgrounds you could do with it and then take turns trying to play something interesting (ie improvise), but she said that the people who really spend a lot of time learning to play that kind of music can get so that they switch from pattern to pattern (scale to scale in my terminology) and the corresponding backgrounds very quickly, which is what master jazz musicians are expected to be able to do here. I was struck by how similar this all is and tried to learn a couple of the patterns in one key. The newness is exciting, but the truth is that I have trouble keeping the notes we already have in tune so it's just a kind of oddity for me right now. If the aforementioned person wasn't someone I only knew online I would have tried to get her to play with me though.

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  10. I just remembered that "individuals" is sometimes used to distinguish people from corporations (which are legally regarded as "persons" in some respects). This still doesn't explain why someone would prefer "individuals" when that confusion isn't an issue, though.

    "And wasn't there a non-Disney Notre Dame in black-and-white?"

    Yes, there are several, including a silent one.

    Edited for link fail.

  11. yeah sorry, I was referring to the 1998 Disney version. I really reacted strongly to it, more so than I ever have to any Disney movie I think--and it's funny because I remember seeing the trailer when I was 9-10, at a drive-in, and immediately being horrified and thinking, "I can never see this movie." I'm not sure if I was old enough to be identifying as a disabled person and not wanting to see a movie where a disabled person was abused, or whether I just didn't want to watch a movie where anyone was being treated like that. And watching it now I still think it's so shitty that the only Disney movie with an explicitly disabled main character portrays him as unsuccessful in love, publicly attacked and humiliated for the shape of his face and body, etc.

    But it's incredibly comforting to watch a Disney movie with a character who looks and moves like that! And for me that comfort is so strong I'm tempted to say it makes up for everything.

    I also find the story of not being able to express sexuality and romantic love, and having to not become bitter and still relate to people in a loving way, to be a really powerful one for me, and I feel like it's a better movie with Quasimodo alone at the end--but I would rather it be a worse movie and send a better message to disabled kids, I think.

    Anyway, I would feel weird writing a post about it without even mentioning the portrayal of "Gypsies" but I feel like I wouldn't be able to talk about the subject at all and my first attempt to find blog posts talking about the movie from that perspective wasn't successful. I'll probably look again later.

  12. Well now I do want to watch it but I won't have time for at least a week probably. I'm not sure I have time to be writing this but ignoring that...

    Anyway, I don't think having representations that are more signicantly more positive than what is actually going on is actually useful for anybody. It's true that "life can imitate art" and to that extent things found in propaganda can be self propagating, but I don't think it would be that realistic for someone like quasimodo to be totally accepted by the community in 1482 or even when the novel was written. Him being alone is probably more realistic and it's still what happens to a lot of people now (plus in the novel he dies). And I think there's also trend in the US where people want everything to have "happy endings" because they are just so insulated from some of the negative things that happen to people that it's not something they relate to, and this isn't really a good thing.

    There's still a question of why there's so few disabled characters in popular culture, though, not just from disney. I tried asking one community for examples of characters with disabilities in films or TV shows and people mentioned a few different things, but one person eventually mentioned a specific actor who uses a wheelchair (I don't remember the name) and any character that this actor plays by default is a disabled character. Everyone here knows that not all disabilities are necessarily visible, but it does say something that that doesn't happen much, much more often, in the same way that people adapt race or gender to the actor who gets the part. If disabled people were a part of "live action" film or television they/we would probably be a bigger part of animated media too and we would have examples of both good endings and bad endings, because it wouldn't be such an oddity.

    I also don't think you necessarily have to cover every aspect of a movie to be able to write about it. I mean, I don't think the average Romani person would write about it from a disability perspective, but right now you're wishing you could find something from that perspective anyway. If it really bothers you then you could mention that there are probably some things wrong with in regard to portrayel of Romani but that you aren't educated enough to really get into them, which could be an invintation for people to comment about it if they ever run into your article and had something to say. But you're talking to someone who views being wrong loudly in public is a good kind of education tool and some people I've respected a lot didn't operate that way at all.

  13. wat

    I don't really believe in those kinds of designations, anyway. I recently watched something that some people claim was written for children (although maybe that's just because it's ABOUT children) and when I was younger I was reading books that were supposedly written for adults. I think it's all fine as long as you don't turn your brain off. Plus the things people show children really do say a lot about the society overall.

  14. oh if you mean children's movies should have endings were good things happen because they need to be insulated from other kinds of endings I disagree with that even more, that's fairly insulting (to children) and they know as much as anyone that things don't always work out like that

  15. I'm not saying everything for kids should end happily, but I don't think the only Disney movie featuring a disabled main character should have a scene where the character is tied down, partially stripped, and has tomatoes thrown at him by a large crowd of people while he looks like he's going to cry, all because he wanted to GO OUTSIDE despite being disabled.

  16. Oh I agree with that but I see that as being more of a problem that disabled main characters are so uncommon, so that whatever they did would have been the only thing they did with disabled main characters. But now we're just going in circles.

  17. while I feel that it's WORSE he's the only disabled main character, I think there are some things that inherently aren't appropriate for a movie that's labeled as being for children and marketed at them. I mean, would you think it's okay to make a Disney movie where you see the main character being violently raped? I'm not using this example because I think it is similar to what happens in Hunchback, but because it seems obvious to me that there is some kind of limit as to what should be in a movie aimed at young kids.

  18. I guess I wouldn't necessarily mind that scenario happening in the movie for children either, but I wouldn't want it to be portrayed directly or in a really blatant way. But I also think the situations where it's appropriate to do that for adults are not that common either, certainly less common than different sorts of violence are gratuitously portrayed (which I believe is a way to desensitize people from the idea of violence against certain sorts of people, including non-western foreigners especially right now).

    I recognize in principle that some things could be traumatic more easily for children but I'm not sure exactly where the delineation lies. It's also been a while since I've seen the movie so I only vaguely remember the scenes that you're talking about, meaning that I probably can't comment intelligently about this aspect of this movie in particular.

  19. I guess I could have just said "You're probably right after all."

  20. Okay, sorry. When I am talking about things I can be pretty blunt about it and when I'm somewhere that that's accepted I'm often seen as one of the more polite people but sometimes people get really upset at me and that's hard for me to deal with. Thanks though.

    Anyway, I did have time to see watch the aforementioned movie yesterday. There's A LOT of things I could say about it. In regards to what we were talking about though:
    -I had a different understanding of the ending than you did. They have Quasimodo leaving the bell tower and then instead of getting things thrown at him someone hugs him and they all walk off together. This seems to imply that he was finally accepted by his community. I actually really don't like this because I think it's disengious. That wouldn't happen now, let alone when this story took place, and it really seems to make that kind of discrimination out as not being a really deep rooted thing.

    -I didn't like the idea that basically being abused for your whole life is no big deal and you can be a totally well adjusted person if that happens, and that this is a valid way to "earn" acceptance. I also didn't like Quasimodo as "ape man."

    -I didn't feel like the kind of violence was beyond what was appropriate for children. There's was nothing extremely graphic but you still got a sense of his lack of safety. But it's hard for me to imagine being young enough that you are insulated from that level violence, since as a child I certainly had people respond to me in that manner, generally from people my age or older but still minors, so I feel like children are either recieving or giving that level of violence or know someone who fits into one of those.

    I wanted to give some examples of some of things people have done to me in particular so I could be clearer but I'm not sure how to talk about it without it seeming like I'm trying to be dramatic and it's not something I've really talked to people about. (Like I've been tied down before but it wasn't as bad as it sounds) It's not like I think I actually deserved it but it did and to some extent does fit into my understanding of how people are going to respond to me, so I have no problem with it being in a movie, even if I don't really prefer to think about it.

  21. gosh Pancho, I'm sorry that happened to you.

  22. bvvvv ag I don't want you to feel sorry for me. Okay I kind of do (anyone else has to ask permission first though, sorry), but I mean I don't want to be like "I DISAGREE. A BAD THING HAPPENED TO ME. THEREFORE I AM RIGHT AND I WIN." And really, the kind of day to day things you wrote about here:
    I think are a much bigger deal. Like if the exact same things had happened to you, but one day you got tied to a pole on (on the ground) and eventually a teacher found you and you went back to class, I don't think you would be very different from how you are now. And to some extent more blatantly violent things like (here I go again) people taking turns jumping on you are the same, because it's not the kind of long term constant thing, or at least for me it wasn't. And if people are really going to get upset about something I'd like them to get upset about those drawn out things because they stay with you.

    But in terms of the movie I really just mean that I can't see how that's bringing something into children's awareness that isn't already there. If they really aren't aware of it, maybe they need to be made aware of it and be told that taking steps to stop anyone doing something like that is a good thing rather than a bad one, even if they're in the minority or even if they're the only person. There were so many things wrong with that movie but I actually see that as maybe the most positive aspect of it. If you had the reaction you did as a child, you probably really didn't need to be told all this, but then you were also able to make the decision to say "I don't want to watch this" and that's something people still need to know how to do as adults.

    It's possible that I'm wrong about all this, too, but I have just never had the ability to see that part of the movie as shocking or surprising.

  23. I didn't mean YOU WIN, I just meant I'm sorry. And I didn't feel like writing a longer comment about the movie right then but I didn't want to ignore what you said because I feel like I have a tendency to act like I'm this huge victim but in comparison to what a lot of disabled people experience I got off so easy--so I wanted to say something.

  24. That's fine and I totally do appreciate and am thankful for that sentiment, but I guess I also feel like you're closer than anyone else I've seen in the kinds of experiences I have had, so even though there are plenty of places where our experiences don't intersect I don't really want to make comparisons that way. And I do know we're both very lucky in a lot of ways.

    Sorry if I'm making things more complicated, if you're waiting until you have the time/energy/words for a longer response you don't need to respond to this right away.