12 September, 2010

high-functioning is dumb take one

in other news, I continue to hate the term "high-functioning" so much that I want to start some sort of google-bombing project or something so the first result for high-functioning is an explanation of what a dumb thing it is to call someone. I'm going to try to make a really short, simple list of reasons why it is such an insulting and inefficient term.

1. people who are labeled "high-functioning" are still disabled and therefore less "high-functioning" than people who aren't disabled. But referring to someone as high-functioning can cause the conscious or unconscious impression that the person's disability isn't significant or real.

2. describing a person's disability by comparing it to other people's disabilities is kind of messed up. If some people are "high-functioning," then other people are "low-functioning," which I think is a terrible way to describe a person. It makes it sound like the person contributes nothing to the world. But even setting aside how insulting these terms are to severely disabled people, describing mildly/moderately disabled people by saying basically "they're not like severely disabled people" does the same thing as #1--it encourages people to think that a mild disability shouldn't be taken seriously, because the disability is constantly being described in terms of "well it's not as bad as something else."

3. "high-functioning" and "low-functioning" are terms that are ridiculously broad. They imply that if someone is bad at one thing, they are bad at everything, and vice versa. A person ends up being labeled as hf or lf based on just a few things about them. And when (as is often the case) someone is labeled "high-functioning" based on the fact that they are a fluent speaker, or they can pass for someone without a disability, that feeds the already too prevalent belief that being able to speak, or being able to pass, is the same as being successful. This hurts speaking/passing people because our problems are ignored; and it hurts nonspeaking/nonpassing people because they end up receiving services that are way too overfocused on trying to get the person to speak or pass, instead of trying to promote independence, happiness, and communication in ways that are most immediately achievable to the person.

4. "high-functioning" is a term that is ridiculously broadly applied. Since most people who speak are labeled as high-functioning, it's a completely meaningless label that can cover, for example, a person who receives a lot of support in living and has a supported employment job, all the way to a person who lives independently, has a competitive employment job, and has never received any services for their disability.

5. and--most obvious to me, but I never hear people say this--it has always struck me that there is no widely used term "middle-functioning" or "moderate-functioning" (I know those terms are used, but not commonly). But there can't be just two kinds of people with Down Syndrome, or two kinds of people with autism. If you must divide people up by their ability level, you've still got to admit there are more than two ability levels in every disability.


Well, if you really have to divide disabled people up and compare us to each other--which I admit is sometimes necessary, for example when you are thinking about who needs what services, or if you are having a discussion about passing/speaking privilege--I think it is better to say mildly, moderately, severely, and profoundly disabled. Now I still think this is super blurry because again not everyone is at the same ability level for different things, but at least there are four options to choose from instead of just two, and at least the terms don't sound as ridiculously weighty and pervasive as high-functioning and low-functioning. "Mildly disabled" still has the word disabled in it so it doesn't imply that the person's life is awesome and easy. "Profoundly disabled" also has the word disabled in it so it makes it clear that the person's disability is all that is being talked about--it doesn't imply that the entire person, their soul, is "low-functioning." (Also, although I know this is silly, I enjoy using the word "profound" to describe people who are so often devalued.)

However, also try to avoid dividing disabled people up with these fuzzy terms at all. A lot of the time when people are running around saying "high-functioning" or "low-functioning" it would be a lot easier to say the person is good at math, or nonverbal, or something. You can best serve and support a person when you think very specifically about what their abilities are, instead of trying to categorize them in such a general way.

Yeah so I'm serious about wanting to google-bomb this and I would appreciate people's suggestions about what to add and subtract.

1 comment:

  1. I totally agree with you. I tend to think that the best replacement for "high-functioning" and "low-functioning" is a simple description of a person's abilities and impairments.