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Thorn, disability, trauma, and the words we use

Thorn, disability, trauma, and the words we use published on 5 Comments on Thorn, disability, trauma, and the words we use

Really enjoyed this piece, “I’m Not a Person with a Disability. I’m an Disabled Person“, by Lisa Egan. Worth reading the whole thing. A few pointed excerpts:

As a person with a mobility impairment, I am disabled by steps, stairs, escalators, being denied computer access as I can’t write by hand, inaccessible housing, and so on. To me, a flight of stairs without a lift as an alternative is the equivalent of right-clicking me and selecting “disable Lisa.”

[…]

I hated my body when I was not allowed on school trips or when I was left in the classroom on my own while my classmates were doing something more fun. I’d get left in the classroom on my own with a math textbook — anything is more fun than that.

Once I learned about the social model, I realized that my body wasn’t the problem at all. The reason I spent so much time in pain was because I’d get half a paracetamol every 4 hours for multiple broken bones.

There was no need for me to be in pain; effective painkillers existed by the 1980s. I just wasn’t given any. Denying someone needed pain meds is an attitudinal barrier making their life needlessly difficult.

[…]

“Disabled” is the best word in the world for describing the barriers I confront and no non-disabled person has the right to try and take that from me.

To be clear, she points out that she’s not saying “person with a disability” is Wrong or Bad across the board. Just that “disabled person” is the better term for her.


So, okay, the personal angle: I have depression.

Here, too, medication exists. Brain chemistry is more finicky than pain, so it took a couple years of trying meds that didn’t make a dent in mine, but finally, wham, ERIN used BUPROPION! It’s super effective!

And “person with a disability” feels more accurate on my end. (Or, better, “person with depression,” because a nonspecific “disability” makes people think of the physical ones first.)

Thing is, with mental health conditions, the context and perception is different. Outside observers can have a hard time distinguishing between the symptoms and your natural emotions. This is a Problem.

Saying “a depressed person” sounds like “a sad person,” and that’s the wrong idea! Even when it was untreated, even when I’ve been smack in the middle of a serious meltdown, it doesn’t feel like normal sadness. From the inside you can tell when things don’t line up with your actual emotions.

Seriously, I remember trying to articulate this to a therapist in seventh grade. Didn’t have the vocabulary for it at all, so the phrase I used was “I think [I’m crying because] there’s something wrong with my tear ducts.” And even this trained mental-health professional interpreted it as “oh, you’re in denial because you’re embarrassed to admit how upset you are.”

Nnnnnnnnnope. Insert your favorite “you tried” graphic here.

It’s not a facet of your personality. You can’t treat it by approaching it like a character trait that you have to work on. (Makes about as much sense as seeing someone with a backpack full of weights, and telling them to take some weight off by…exercising.) It’s a separate thing. A distinct noun.

The word choice has to make that clearer, not more muddled.

And, listen, I’m not gonna bite anyone’s head off if you use “depressed” in a context where it’s clear what you’re talking about. Right now I work with a group that does disability services, and that category in the database is “Disabled.” That’s fine.

But if I’m referring to myself, it’s gonna be “person with depression.” The implications there line up best with the ones I want to get across.


So let’s bring this around to Thorn.

The backstory in a nutshell: Sir Thorn killed a dragon. Hooray! But in the process he was badly injured, and the aftereffects linger to this day. Boo, hiss.

Physically, he has notable burn scarring on his left arm. And that’s after the best healing available in his magical fantasy country.

Mentally, he has what in our universe would be called PTSD. That’s been brought pretty well under control by treatment too, some of it recognizable in our world (therapy!), some of it not so much (magically soulbonded cat).

You can see some of the low-key effects in the strip so far. Nothing dramatic, no moments where he just aggressively cannot deal. (…Yet.)

It helps that his world has a pretty good understanding of trauma overall. You’d be amazed what a difference that makes. There’s this one IRL study, which I cannot for the life of me find now, where someone got to the survivors of a disaster (boat sinking? earthquake?) and gave them all a one-page flier about common trauma symptoms and effects. Followed up a year later, and the PTSD in the group was way lower — less common, less severe — than average.

More understanding, less stigma, good consequences all around. When Thorn doesn’t want to talk about his backstory, that’s out of a sense of privacy and boundaries, not because he’s been shamed into never talking at all. When he faces something that might play into his triggers, his teammates know it’s a reasonable risk, and will matter-of-factly offer to run interference if he needs it.

(You would think there would be more fictional dragonslayers who, in the aftermath, have triggers related to fire….)

Most of the time, these days, he’s functioning at a good level. Not a lot of active impairment. Most of the time, the people around him are not selecting “disable Thorn.”

However:

that is kind of what the dragon did, you know?

Thorn’s conditions are the result of a specific event. One that was even more actively aggressive than “failing to provide treatment” or “designing things that don’t accommodate how his body works.” They were inflicted on him, and that’s an important part of how he thinks of them, and how he would want other people to understand them.

The phrase “person with a disability” is timeless, eternally-present. “Disabled” is a past-tense verb, better for implying that this had a starting point, that it’s part of the texture of his personal history.

And even in those moments when it’s not actively affecting him — after he’s had years of good support, and is generally in a pretty healthy place — the history is still significant.

Kind of like how you would keep calling yourself “educated” long after you’re out of school (and, let’s face it, have forgotten a lot of the specifics). The experience was still a big part of shaping who you are today, and that’s what you’re trying to get across.

tl;dr Thorn would prefer calling himself “disabled.”


…in English translation, anyway. His native language isn’t necessarily going to break down these terms and their implications in the same way. But that’s a layer deeper than I’m gonna dig in a single post.

Readers, any of you involved in disability advocacy in a non-English language, and/or have opinions about the politics of the lingo it uses? Drop a comment, let me know.