As an avid baseball fan who wasn’t born in the 19th century, for a long time I thought the game’s tagline of “America’s favorite pastime” was at best, corny, and at worst, out of touch with what American culture has become. The more I thought about it, and the more kinds of sports I watched, the more I began to see the ways in which we find our values, fears, desires, and priorities (for better or for worse) reflected back at us from the pitch. From baseball to Australian Rules Footie, fans have been interweaving sports and identity for as long as games and teams have existed. This new monthly series will spend time parsing out ways we see ourselves—as Americans, and as humans—in our sports, and what that might say about us.
Number of players that have been on, or are currently on the Injured List (IL) in 2019: 287; Number of disabled Americans as per last census: 56.7 million, or 19% of the population; Daniel Murphy’s 2019 slash line: .171/.244/.329; Number of muscles in the human buttocks: 3
I am used to people talking wide arcs around my deafness. They look embarrassed when it comes up and they somehow have to refer to the fact that I can’t hear. I watch them rifle mentally through a variety of deeply weird terms invented by hearing people—“hearing handicapped,” “impaired,” or, my personal favorite, “challenged” (challenge accepted?)—trying to avoid saying the word “deaf.” Sometimes they don’t say anything at all, just blush and kind of wave or point at their own ear apologetically. Most of the time I find this dance funny, but sometimes it is frustrating. Deaf, I end up explaining, is not that kind of four-letter word, and the most accurate descriptor for my deaf-ass ears.
Mine is hardly a unique experience—deaf and disabled people have these conversations daily. This season an iteration of the discussion has even been spotlighted in sports when Major League Baseball announced they were changing the name of the Disabled List, known colloquially as “the DL,” to the Injured List (IL). The operating procedures for said list remain the same: major league teams have an active roster of twenty-five players, and if someone is injured they are relegated to an inactive list for a period of either ten, fifteen, or sixty days, to make space for another player to be called up from the extended forty-man roster or the minor leagues.
The change, semantically, makes sense. I don’t think anyone would argue that Daniel Murphy’s tight butt muscle, or Miguel Cabrera’s “flu-like symptoms” (read: hangover) are actual disabilities. However, in a game famous for its truly bizzaro vernacular—a frozen rope, a worm burner, a can of corn, a yakker—something tells me that the discrepancy between the Oxford English Dictionary definition of “disabled” and its use to describe an injured player was not the main concern.
The truth is, abled people are afraid of disability as both a concept and a term. The divide between how abled people view disability and how disabled people view themselves is stark—Disability Theory calls the differing worldviews “the medical model” versus “the social model.” The medical model, the standard in abled society, sees disability as a deviance from the standard body, and therefore something bad to both ashamed of and cured. Disabled people, the medical model purports, are broken versions of abled people who struggle to participate in society because of that brokenness.
By contrast, the social model rejects the concept of “normalcy” and views disability as just one of many expressions of human variance and diversity. Disability is part of one’s identity, helps shape a person’s larger worldview, and offers up a unique community and culture. Disabled people aren’t who they are despite their disabilities, but because of them, and access struggles are not necessarily because of a body’s inability to do something, but rather society’s refusal to accept that there is more than one way to do it.
Disabled people who subscribe to the social model of disability—often those born disabled rather than those who acquire a disability via accident or old age—prefer to be called “disabled,” because the term is cultural rather than stigma-laden, with prominent disabled activists running the campaigns #saytheword and @disvisibility online.
On the other hand, people who subscribe to the medical model see the term as tethered to failure and indignity. Since they view disability as an inherent shortcoming within people themselves rather than a series of barriers society has constructed, the only solution is to change the word. This is how the English language has amassed disability euphemisms from the vague “special needs,” to the clunky person-first “people with disabilities” to the downright cringey “handi-capable!”
Sydney, Australia has been the epicenter of a particularly stupid debate, wherein the City Council and Mayor have been exploring whether they should replace the world “disabled” with the phrase “Access Inclusion Seekers” in the city’s policies. One of the members of the advising disability council, Mark Tonga, said in support the proposed measure, “Disability is a subliminal pejorative for many. It’s negative. Perhaps sooner than you’d think, the ‘d’ word will be as offensive as the ‘n’ word is now.”
Well first of all, a hard NOPE on the simple basis that this comparison is offensive to black people, erasing both the egregious history behind the N-word and the experience of intersectionally marginalized disabled people of color.
Bad comparisons aside, there are, of course, myriad slurs toward disabled people that carry the pain of systemic oppression, forced institutionalization, sterilization and mass murder in eugenics contexts—”disabled” just isn’t one of those slurs.
While Tonga is a wheelchair user himself, he grew up abled and had a career in rugby before an accident rendered him tetraplegic. Having been born and raised abled, and as an athlete who placed a premium on his own mobility, it appears Tonga continues to hold the conventional medical view of disability in juxtaposition to normalcy, a tragedy to be fixed or cured. Just like racism and misogyny, ableism can be, and often is, internalized. For Tonga specifically, his new disability is in radical opposition to his own previous “normal” way of life, so it makes sense for him to feel this way. The problem comes when statements like this are understood as sweeping stand-ins for how all disabled people feel about themselves, further justifying those ableist views.
This is not to say that even culturally disabled people have reached a consensus on the subject of the DL to the IL shift. Some disability activists have also praised the change, suggesting the switch moves society closer to an understanding that disability is “part of the human condition” rather than an adjective for someone who’s hurt themselves.
I hope this is true, but most of me is wary. As a writer I feel strongly that words matter; as a Deaf person I doubt anyone’s mind has suddenly been opened to an interest in understanding my experience of the world because they have to say “I” instead of “D.” Maybe it’s a baby step toward something, but it is not the thing.
It’s easy to change a word. It’s much harder to get organizations to hire a sign language interpreter or caption their video content, invest in the Special Olympics, or make playing fields, stadiums, and their bathrooms accessible. No amount of yelling “handicapable!” will turn those stairs into a ramp. We mustn’t let abled people get away with literal lip-service to the idea of inclusion while systematically avoiding the work that goes into making a society inclusive.