On the Shifting Language of Disability

“Crippled,” “Physically Impaired” or “Mobility Challenged”?
On the Shifting Language of Disability


Tuesday, August 27, 2013 | 12:30-1:30 p.m.
Whitewater Room, Idaho Commons


Kurt Queller
Departments of English and Modern Languages & Cultures, University of Idaho

Sophie Raineri
Département d’Études Anglophones, Université Paris Ouest - Nanterre La Défense

Abstract
Why do terms for disability keep changing? According to the “euphemism treadmill” theory, cyclic replacement happens reactively, as negative connotations accrue to each new “euphemism.” Analyzing corpus data within a Cognitive Linguistics framework, the present study significantly revises this model. New terms originate proactively, in attempts to “reframe” disability. The ‘{X}-impaired’ construction frames it as quantifiable deviation from clinically established norms, objectifying the disabled as clients of a clinical establishment (cf. Foucault’s Birth of the Clinic). Promoting a newer ‘social’ model of disability, the 1970s Disabilities Rights Movement pioneered the ‘{X}-challenged’ construction. It invokes a rhetoric of “challenge” drawn from progressive educational theory (especially Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed), reframing disability as a struggle for personal and social self-actualization. While parodying the euphemism treadmill, subsequent humorous ‘PC’ extensions (…“vertically challenged” [=short], “navigationally impaired” [=bad driver]…) also playfully reflect and critique ‘identity politics’ and its role in contemporary American society.


Biographies

Kurt Queller earned a B.A. in History, then an M.A. in Speech & Hearing Science at the University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana); his doctorate in Linguistics is from Stanford. He has taught English and Modern Languages (mostly German) at the UI since 1993. His research focuses on how words acquire new meanings through inferential reasoning by hearers in specific conversational contexts. Publications also include analyses of Greek inter- and intratextuality in the gospel of Mark, and (with Ellen Kittell) of gender inclusivity in medieval northern French town ordinances.

Sophie Raineri graduated from Paris 3-Sorbonne Nouvelle with a Ph.D. in English Linguistics. In 2011 she joined the English Department at Paris Ouest—Nanterre La Défense as an assistant professor. She has geared her research around the interplay between form, meaning and function in grammatical constructions. Given her interest in the tension between conservatism and creativity in language, she also explores how constructions develop and change over time. The languages she studies – often from a contrastive perspective – are primarily English and French.