Language and its impact on the identity of minorities

In exploring the impact of chemical warfare on the lives of people, Palmer (2007) and Tuyet and Johansson (2001) successfully illustrate the struggles experienced by women in post-war Vietnam. However, their understanding of disability differs greatly, which has implications on how identity is developed among minorities, specifically people with disabilities. This paperโ€”intended for future policy makers in the human rights fieldโ€”explores this issue in depth and argues that language plays an important role in developing identities.

The term handicapped" is used by Tuyet and Johansson (2001), obviously unaware of the fact that this term has its origins in the belief that people with disabilities can only be beggarsโ€”with their cap in hand" out on the streets and begging for money. This word was created in 1504 by King Henry VII and its use to describe people with disabilities continues todayโ€”more than 500 years laterโ€”thus illustrating a deeply rooted stigmatization and discrimination of people with disabilities in society.

In this paper written in 2001โ€”only ten years agoโ€”children with disabilities are described as a burden" to family members caring for them, as abnormal," unhealthy," unable" to attend school. However, their inability" to attend school is a result of the physically and socially constructed barriers of society rather than their incapacities as children with impairments. This is discrimination. Tuyet and Johansson, however, are not aware of this and instead write that they found no indication of discrimination against the 30 families" (page 162).The authors fail to link their statement of finding no discrimination against people with disabilities on page 162 to their earlier statement of children unable to go to school" on page 159, which I find disappointing. This highlights the importance of meeting with disabled peoplesโ€™ organizations (DPOs) before conducting interviews and research in the field to ensure that peopleโ€”like Tuyet and Johanssonโ€”are aware of the hidden and silenced aspects of disability in society.

To link this discussion with the work of Butalia (2000), identity is tied closely to the fact that oneโ€™s own understanding of identity is tied closely to how the majority of the population views their identity. That is, which components of identity are suppressed or celebrated depends largely on the environment that a person finds themselves in. In the case of Agent Orange affected children of Vietnam, they are believed to be abnormal, unhealthy and sufferingโ€”which then leads directly to negative feelings of self-worth and low self-esteem.

Unfortunately, parents can play a role in affirming this negative identity in their children. For example some husbands expressed feelings of guilt that their misfortunes were self-inflicted and that they had brought unhappiness to their wives and children" (Tuyet and Johansson, page 161). Also, many women said that they felt inferior for not being able to give birth to normal children" (Ibid.). These feelings of guilt, unhappiness, inferiority and abnormality are passed onto their children.

Girls with disabilities are valued least of allโ€”below boys and girls without disabilities and, at times, below boys with disabilities. The structure and hierarchy of Vietnamese (and Southeast Asian) society labels girls with disability as the least valued member of a family and of society. Many girls with disabilities are put up for adoption.

However, discrimination is not only faced by girls. The term war invalid" to describe Vietnamese men renders them as legally and socially invisible. Rather than being referred to as survivors of war or war heroesโ€”as South Asian women were referred to in the post-colonial eraโ€”these Vietnamese men are described as being invalid," thus negatively influencing their identity.

Identity and language are coupled so tightly together that weโ€”as future policy makersโ€”must take into consideration how our perception of others translates in written and oral form and how this, in turn, influences how others perceive themselves and how their inner-voice is developed. Policy and discrimination in the legal and social spheres are tied closely together. In Palmerโ€™s (2007) paper, he uses the term persons with disabilities" rather than disabled people." In the 6 years since Tuyet and Johansson wrote their paper, terminology has been shifting to illustrate that impairments are disabling only if the environment makes them so. This is evidence that terminology and mindsets are shifting with regards to how disability is viewed. However, there is still room for improvement. Just as King Henry VII created the term "handicapped" in 1504, we should think innovatively to create positive words to describe minorities and people affected by war. Only then can we envisage a world were all aspects of a personโ€™s identity are celebrated and allowed to flourish, even the ones that we label today as abnormal," inferior" and unhealthy."

The author is currently completing a Masters in International Affairs at the AustralianNationalUniversity in Canberra, and has experience working in the disability and development field in Thailand and Indonesia. She is contactable via email at karagiozakis@yahoo.com.au

By: Ms. Maria Karagiozakis
When: 7/2/2014

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