The Let's Play Archive

Katawa Shoujo

by Falconier111

Part 12: Disability Corner: Euphemisms

Disability Corner: Euphemisms

Hey, you remember this meme?

If you don’t, don’t worry, you’re not missing much. Especially since it’s… Jesus fucking Christ, this picture is old enough to vote :corsair:. Way back in the Bush years, we old’uns used this image to poke fun at his supporters, commonly stereotyped as racist, uneducated rednecks with a collective hard-on for violence. People associated a lot of -isms with this guy, anything we could come up with. Was anything we said about him true? Who knows? His mustache certainly isn’t telling. All we know is he thought morans should get a brain.

Was he advocating the distribution of brains to those with IQ scores between 51 and 70? Probably not. He’d probably say that’s how smart his opponents were. I know we said it applied to him. Someone we thought had terrible opinions. Using a deprecated clinical term invented by a fucking eugenicist. And one we thought was a fair description of him. As people who considered ourselves champions of tolerance and diversity.


The phrase ”euphemism treadmill” describes what happens when people try to introduce polite terms for perceived problems that won’t go away. Let’s say, as a purely theoretical exercise, that there’s a guy who thinks a one night stand with a disabled person is enough to spawn hundreds of ableist caricatures. He believes you can categorize disabled people by their rough mental age so reliably he gives those categories names: “idiot” for the “youngest”, already a term for those seen as stupid; “imbecile” for those in the middle, a word that previously referred to those with a physical or mental disability; and “moron” for the “oldest”, an ancient Greek word he mangles to fit his theory like a proper 19th century scientist. Let’s say he’s also one of the most respected mental health authorities in America and uses those words as part of the basis for modern psychiatric testing. That means they’ll be treated as distinct, specific clinical terms, right? Nope. The moment people hear those words used to describe people they look down on, they steal them and start using them as insults. It happens. Constantly. And nobody cares. That hypothetical guy dies, claiming he wasn’t actually advocating sterilizing people he didn’t respect to his grave, but his categories outlive him as ways people describe other people when they think they aren’t as smart as them. Which is kind of what you get if you take insults and try to use them as medical terms :v:

So after a while, views on what our definitely-not-real example up there called “feeble-mindedness” start to shift in the scientific community. Now, they want to recast things in terms of human development and developmental ability, even though that’s literally the point of those relative age things. They decide to coin a more general phrase, one that’s a little more scientific than the sort of thing that ends up misspelled on a protest sign. But what to use? If “developmental” is the word of the day, and if development slowing down is what you want to focus on, why not use something that reflects that? Well, there is a way to describe something that slows something else down – like how “fire retardant” describes the material that slows burning down. Yeah, it’s the good ol’ r-word. It takes seconds for kids to turn it into an insult, and it doesn’t help that, since schools are just starting to implement special education programs, they now have plenty of ready-made targets. Its new meaning so thoroughly overtakes the original that people start lopping off the first two letters and attaching it as a suffix to the names of groups they don’t like. Belatedly realizing this might get in the way of doing their jobs, with the help of nascent disability activist groups run almost entirely by people without disabilities, they come up with a bunch of pleasant euphemisms: handicapable, diverse abilities, differently abled. Special. All of them supposedly emphasize their abilities, their value. And what do you get?

For those of you who can’t read it or don’t know the context, this comic compares the lions on various Scandinavian countries’ coats of arms. Finland’s is described as having a “special” lion, one which has a sword through its head, unfocused eyes, and is messily eating flowers. I’m pretty sure the artist isn’t praising it.

It’s astonishingly difficult to find any word used to describe below-average intelligence that doesn’t have ableist roots. Even “dumb” describes someone who’s mute because they’re too stupid to talk. The euphemism treadmill kept running, and every time somebody came up with a neutral term, somebody else immediately made it negative because the term changed nothing about the subject. All of those words are now it’s detritus. I’d say it makes it impossible to talk about intelligence without people getting up in arms, but our conception of intelligence is bullshit anyway. But that’s another story.

Let me know if you have any other topics you’d like me to cover. I can’t give you a timeline on when I’ll get it back to you, but I love taking requests.