Thursday, September 10, 2009

Funky and Clunky APA

I met today with a student who received a low grade on a paper. She's allowed to revise it, but because of the subject matter, she didn't want to spend more time on it; she just wanted to make sure we were on the same page. We ended up talking for about 45 minutes, not just about organization and coherency (the main problems with the paper) but about the death penalty, Vegas, and non-biased language.

APA style recommends using non-biased language when referring to individuals with disabilities. That is, use language to "maintain the integrity of individuals as whole human beings." The idea is to identify the person first and the disability second. Instead of "disabled person," we refer to a "person with a disability." Instead of "schizophrenic," we say, "an individual with schizophrenia."

When I introduced this in class Tuesday, I got a rise out of more than a few students who said it seemed like overkill, or it contradicted my earlier pleas for conciseness. One of the guidelines is to see "people with disabilities as a resource and as contributing community members, not as a burden or problem," preferring the clunky "responsibilities of the community for inclusion and support" over "community support needs of individuals." No one is "confined" to a wheelchair; rather, he or she "uses" a wheelchair.

The same student I met with today had asked, "Does anyone ask the people what they want to be called?" She went on to describe her husband, paralyzed from the waist down years earlier after an accident. "He's a paraplegic," she said. "He wouldn't want anyone to tell him he couldn't call himself a 'paraplegic.'" She said he had to suffer through months of therapy to get into that wheelchair. "Now," she had said, "he's a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair. He owns that"

I couldn't and didn't argue. We talked a little about how members of any group have earned the right to refer to themselves however they choose. APA is simply a standard; it's neutral to the point of blandness. But throughout history we've seen language used to denigrate and marginalize in ways both obvious and not. APA is used to write scientific reports, articles on research studies. The neutrality will enable facts to speak for themselves.

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