The words we choose and why: This post does not make use of person-first language. This is a purposeful choice. To learn more about why many members of the disabled community elect to refer to themselves as disabled, visit: http://www.autistichoya.com/2011/08/significance-of-semantics-person-first.html.
I was reminded this past week working at Disability Rights Iowa of the importance of language. Of its utility to make manifest in the world that which we believe and aspire to be, and the harm it can cause when left festering in the past. It was for perhaps this reason I was not shocked to find that the term “ward” is still the terminology used in Iowa code surrounding adults with guardianships in Iowa. A Dickensian holdover from an earlier time, such language simply does not have place in modern understandings of guardianships or disability. Yet, here it remains, shaping a new generation’s understanding of the concept of guardianships.
The evolution of a term like “ward” is incredibly old and complex, with early understandings born in part from the divine right of kings, and the perceived sacred duty of the monarch. Paren’s Patriae, literally the “parent of the nation” morphed over time, establishing the role of wardships in caring for the state’s most vulnerable. The powers of the petty king over their petty kingdom are emboldened with the presumption of benevolence. In that sense, the word is shockingly inappropriate. No better analogy could be applied for the worst impulses to be found surrounding guardianships. The sticky sweet, poisoned honey that is paternalism.
The word ward is a hopelessly antiquated view of the guardian relationship, and the role people with disabilities play in society. It suggests a familiarity with disabled people that does not extend past Tiny Tim. People who have never lived disabled lives, had disabled thoughts, or loved disabled people, their courage, curves and eccentricities. It speaks from a place of willful ignorance, both of my disabled family and the ways in which mechanisms of power are utilized. People with disabilities are not wards, nor are guardian’s kings or queens.
Guardianships are not about restricting choice, but empowering the individual to enter into a universe of choices safely. They do not exist to serve egos, preserve familiar family dynamics into adulthood, or undermine a person’s right to a fully explored sexual identity. They are not a tool of the petty despot. Guardianships if utilized correctly are a tool of empowerment, offering people with disabilities safety and supports while allowing them to make lives of their choosing and enjoy the dignity of risk. Clinging to antiquated and dangerous terms like Ward distract from the true purpose of guardianships, and their role in creating a more integrated and open society for people with disabilities.
Paternalism, as directed towards disabled people, is a form of violence. A cinder block thrown from an overpass is no less dangerous if thrown with good intentions, and its consequences no less brutal. Words flung carelessly from the height of privilege tend to come crashing down on marginalized people first. They hit hard, snap bones and destroy lives. Those who might view this as hyperbole have never been on the receiving end of the simple violence of discriminatory language, and the means in which they shape perception.
My disabled brothers and sisters are not cherubs, angels, or lost lambs in need of care. We are not your wards and we demand empowering, minimal and individualized guardianships. Words shape the world in which we live, give it context, contrast and texture. They are the marrow in the bone. In matters of law, procedure or best practice, they are invaluable in mapping out the society in which we hope to live, language loftier then our current grasp. We will be talked about in terms of our own choosing, because those terms dictate the very conditions of lives. Those in positions of power owe it to themselves and the people they serve to use words with care, embracing self-reflection and working always to empower the marginalized. And for those unwilling few, the disabled community is more than happy to provide them some words of our own.