On the 22nd of May, 2015 The Chronicle newspaper published an article with the headline “Disabled Child Ruins Marriage.” While I would have loved for the article to focus on the plight of children with disabilities in Zimbabwe, instead the article focused on how a child with a disability ‘ruined’ a marriage. To summarize the article, two years ago, a teenage girl was impregnated by a 26 year-old man. This man then put pressure on the girl to kill the baby after she gave birth to a daughter with a disability as a condition for marrying her. It is reported that the man left her after she gave birth and does not want the child because of the disability.
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that language affects the ways in which its respective speakers conceptualise their world. Simply put, the language we use shapes our world. Language plays a crucial role in the discrimination of not just people with disabilities but of all other minority groups. When a society uses derogatory terms for people who are viewed as being “different,” it leads to the mistreatment and discrimination of that particular minority group. For example the Shona term for disabled person is chirema whilst the plural is zvirema. The appropriate term would be munhu ane chirema. The word chirema is dehumanising, presents the person with a disability as a thing rather than a human being, and places emphasis on their disability instead of the person. Using the word chirema immediately creates a negative depiction of the person with a disability thereby leading to their potential mistreatment and discrimination.
In the same way the choice of words used in the headline and article “Disabled Child Ruins Marriage” has the potential to create a culture of discrimination towards children with disabilities. By using the word ‘disabled’ here, the emphasis is placed on the child’s disability instead of the fact that her father abandoned her because of the disability. The word implies that the same child is to blame for the breakdown of her parents’ marriage, as if she had a choice in being born with a disability. Again, the headline ignores the fact that her father abandoned her and her mother because of her disability. From just reading the headline without reading the article, the take-home message would be: children with disabilities ruin marriages and it is unacceptable for women to give birth to children with disabilities lest their marriages are ruined.
This is just one more negative stereotype of children with disabilities. An appropriate headline could have been “Mother and Child Abandoned by Father Because of Child’s Disability”. This headline paints a clear picture of what actually happened and in the process places the blame on the actual culprit, the father.
The choice of words used in the description of the child “The child is stunted and could be deaf and dumb as the child cannot speak” assists in creating a culture of discrimination towards children with disabilities. The description gives a negative impression of the child and while it may be true that the child is deaf, the description to a large extent dehumanises the child. The word ‘dumb’ is synonymous with stupidity and by saying “…dumb as the child cannot speak” implies that the child is stupid and that this is the reason why she cannot speak.
Whilst the author of the article might have not have thought much about their choice of words to describe the child, the words are dehumanising and discriminatory. The appropriate and acceptable description should have been “The child has stunted growth and could possibly have both a hearing and speech impairment”. This description is better because it says that there is a ‘possibility’ that the child has a hearing and speech impairment.
The negative language used not just in the headline of the article but also in the body of the article, fuels a culture of discrimination towards children with disabilities. The overall message of the article is negative. It is saying that children with disabilities ruin your marriage; if a woman gives birth to a child with a disability that child should be killed in order for her to stay married to her husband; and that these children are not worthy to be looked after by their fathers.
To some it may have been viewed as just an article with no significant impact, but it is a clear example of how language can create a culture of discrimination. The language used to address people with disabilities not only determines how they will be treated, but it also affects the way in which society sees them. If negative, dehumanising words are used to speak about people with disabilities, then society will not only have a negative perception of them but will also discriminate against them. However if positive words are used to speak of people with disabilities, then society will not only view them positively, but it will then also lead to society accepting people with disabilities and treating them better.
Main image from www.chronicle.co.zw