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Blog: A Brief Guide to Disability Terminology and Theory in Ancient World Studies

Hephaestus returns to Olympus riding a donkey and carrying hammer and tongs. He is led by Dionysus, who bears a thyrsos (pine-cone tipped staff) and drinking cup.

Content warning: disability slurs & ableist language

As our culture changes, so, too, does the language that we use. This post is an invitation to discuss what is, at present, a culturally appropriate approach to language for writing or teaching about disability in the ancient world. We must always reflect on the importance of language and strive to learn the best practices for acknowledging the lives of the subjects of our research. At the same time, we must show due respect to our disabled colleagues and students. Our choice of language is important because, statistically speaking, you already have disabled colleagues and students. This is not an issue for other people or another time, but for all of us, disabled and nondisabled, right now.

This is a work in progress, but our goals are threefold: to demystify the language around disability; to encourage you to consider the ways that your language can humanize or dehumanize disabled people, ancient and modern; and to bring new voices to the discussion.

Language and Culture

  • Ableism: ideas, practices, institutes, and social relations that presume ablebodiedness, and, by so doing, construct persons with disabilities as marginalized (Chouinard. 1997: 380).
  • Disablism: a set of assumptions (conscious or unconscious) and practices that promote the differential and unequal treatment of people because of actual or presumed disabilities (Campbell. 2009: 4).

The language we use reflects how we situate and understand disability in our contemporary society and, unfortunately, we live in a society that is both ableist and disablist. As such, the language we use is ideologically loaded and infused with preconceived and often unconscious biases. Our goal should be to discuss disability in the ancient world in ways that do not presume interpretations based on our personal, cultural, and historical biases.

Models of Disability

Scholars in the field of Disability Studies and disability rights activists have articulated some of the ways that modern societies conceptualize disability. These models are not intended to be directly imposed onto ancient cultures, as they had worldviews and cultural beliefs different from the modern world in which the models were created. Rather, the models can help you take the first step into reexamining your own understanding of disability, which may or may not influence your approach to disability in the past.

The two most discussed models are the medical model and the social model.

The medical model of disability views disability as a problem or a deficit located within individuals. Because disability is an individual problem, disabled people must fix themselves — through rehabilitation, medication, prostheses, assistive devices, and so on — so that they conform with or more closely match the bodies, minds, and behaviors of nondisabled people. In this case, the problem is in the body or simply is the body of the disabled person.

The social model, on the other hand, views society as the problem. This model distinguishes between impairment and disability. An impairment is a person’s physical, mental, emotional, or intellectual difference(s), while disability refers to the social consequences of having or being presumed to have an impairment. It is not a person’s impairment, then, but rather society itself which causes someone to be disabled. In this model, it is not the individual and their body and impairments that need to be corrected, but the society that prevents disabled people from participating equitably. This model does not fully theorize impairment and thus falls short of considering embodiments and lived experiences of disabled people, but it can be useful to help identify and potentially avoid ableist biases.

Framing Disability

When discussing or describing disability in the ancient world, try to use language that is neutral and does not already include an evaluation or interpretation. Consider the different implications of the following sentences:

  • Hephaestus suffered from a congenital deformity that limited his movement.
  • Hephaestus had a congenital mobility impairment.

In the first sentence, Hephaestus’s disability is given a negative valence from the start with words like “suffered,” “deformity,” and “limited.” These implications are an interpretation, suggesting how his disability was understood by the ancient Greeks. In the second sentence, his disability is presented as a matter-of-fact aspect of his characterization, much like saying Athena was born from Zeus’ head or Hermes was precocious.

In translations, it is sometimes necessary to use stigmatized language, if, for example, bodily or mental difference is used as a source of insult humor. Likewise, context may require language that has uncomfortable connotations today. In the Hippocratic On Joints, for example, the author refers to individuals who are ἐκ γενεῆς γαλιάγκωνες, which literally means “weasel-jointed/weasel-armed from birth.” In translations, it is acceptable to use the modern language (except slurs) that you think is true to the original context. When discussing it in the body of your own work, however, it is likely unnecessary to continue using such language. In the Hippocratic example, you might translate “weasel-jointed from birth” but then continue discussing the passage by referring to “individuals with a congenital limb difference” or just “individuals with this congenital impairment/disability.”

General Guidelines

These guidelines are intended to provide you with some general principles that you can apply in your discussions of disability in the ancient period, as well as in modern situations. Not all of the following will be relevant in all contexts.

1. Preferred terms for discussing broader concepts include impairment, disability, disabled, nondisabled, neurodiverse/neurodiversity, and neurotypical. Avoid referring to nondisabled people as “normal,” as if disability is not a normal part of the human experience. Neurodiversity, similarly, is the concept that individual differences in brain function are also part of normal variation within the human experience.  Euphemisms (e.g., “special needs,” “differently abled,” “visually challenged,” and “handi-capable”) reflect ableist discomfort with disability and should likewise be avoided. They serve to reinforce infantilizing stereotypes or negative attitudes about disability as well as elicit unfavorable thoughts and feelings toward disabled people (Gernsbacher 2016; E.E. Andrews 2019).

2. Understand the difference between person-first (e.g., “person with a disability,” “person with dwarfism”) and identity-first language (e.g., “disabled person,” “dwarf person”). While neither is, strictly speaking, incorrect, many disabled people prefer identity-first language, especially when speaking about disabled people as an undifferentiated group. Some communities have specific preferences: Autistic, Blind, and Deaf people largely prefer identity-first language, while people with disabilities that do not have adjectival forms tend to prefer person-first language. People with congenital disabilities may differ in their preferences from people who acquired disabilities later in life.

When discussing specific types of disabilities in the ancient world, use terms that are appropriate in the modern period, so long as their connotations are relevant in the ancient context. So, for example, a capitalized Deaf refers to people who identify as culturally Deaf, who are actively engaged in a Deaf community that sees itself as sharing a common culture and language. A lowercase deaf, on the other hand, refers to the physical condition and is used by people who do not feel a particular affinity with Deaf culture. If no Deaf culture existed in the ancient world, you would not replicate the capitalization of the initial letter when discussing deafness in that context.

If you are referring to a living person, and their disability is relevant for some reason, ask how they prefer their disability to be discussed.

3. In some cases, appropriate language suggestions may seem contradictory. While euphemisms like “differently abled” should be avoided because they represent discomfort with the presence and reality of disability, a phrase like “limb difference” is acceptable because it is seen as descriptive, not euphemistic. The term “impairment” is generally considered neutral and descriptive, but some Deaf and Hard of Hearing people dislike the term “hearing impairment” because it implies a deficit that they do not acknowledge (especially if their Deafness is congenital). In general, always default to a disabled person’s preferred terminology, if known, and be willing to take corrections from the disabled community, as they are the experts in this instance. See #10 below about the importance of research in our desire to be sensitive.

4. Avoid using disability language metaphorically. So, for example, avoid saying that someone is “tone-deaf” when you mean that they are insensitive, calling an argument “lame” or “crazy” when it is uncritical or unfounded, or labeling an inconsistent methodology “schizophrenic.” Similarly, some other examples include using the words “stupid,” “idiotic,” or “dumb,” when you mean uninformed, reckless, foolish, or ignorant.

5. Avoid terms and phrases that imply deficit, suffering, pity, or victimhood. All of these are interpretations of the value and/or experience of disability. Common words and phrases in this category include “wheelchair-bound” and “suffering from cerebral palsy.” Reframe the discussion with phrases like wheelchair user and person with cerebral palsy.

6. Avoid terms and phrases that imply that an individual has overcome their disability, such as saying that Hephaestus was a god despite his disability. This framing perpetuates an “inspiration porn” narrative, which serves to objectify and infantilize disabled people for the benefit for nondisabled people. Hephaestus was a god and disabled, or just a disabled god.

7. In general, avoid using disability-related adjectives as nouns. So, for example, the son of Croesus (Herodotus 1.34) was non-speaking (κωφός); he was not “a mute” or “a deaf-mute.”

8. Do not use outdated terminology, regardless of how commonly it has historically been used in scholarship or if it is the term provided in an ancient language dictionary. If you must use an outdated term, as when quoting previous scholarship or in a translation where the context calls for it, do not repeat the term in your own argument, but use the updated/correct term. If you must repeat the word as part of your own argument, put it in quotes.

9. A modern word being a Latin or ancient Greek cognate is not an acceptable reason to use it if it is otherwise outdated or offensive.

10. Remember that language is fluid and constantly evolving. It is our responsibility to remain current. Take the time to research or perform internet searches, privileging the perspectives of disabled people over that of nondisabled people, including nondisabled caretakers of disabled people.

11. The following are suggestions for language replacements based on the input and evaluation of people who self-identify as disabled. It is not intended to be exhaustive, but to cover a variety of common disability-related terminology. Use your best judgment when it comes to language, such as when a term is more appropriate for living communities but less relevant or appropriate for an ancient context.

Use this…

Not this…

disability / disabled

invalid, defective, retarded, handicap/handicapped, cripple, deformity, misshapen, malformed/deformed, grotesque, disfigured

congenital disability

birth defect

nondisabled

normal

intellectual disability / intellectually disabled

stupid, idiot, moron/moronic, feeble-minded, mentally defective, mental retardation/retarded, simpleton, imbecile, high/low functioning

developmental disability / developmentally disabled

Mongoloid, cretin, retarded, imbecile

mental illness, neurodiversity

crazy, insane/insanity, maniac, spaz/spastic, psycho/psychopathic, lunatic, imbecile

died by suicide

committed suicide

chronic illness

sick

wheelchair user

wheelchair-bound, confined to a wheelchair

mobility impaired / with a mobility impairment

crippled, handicapped, lame*

Deaf/deaf, hard of hearing

hearing impaired

blind, visually impaired

non-speaking, nonverbal, person with mutism

mute, dumb

person with dwarfism, dwarf person, person of short stature, Little Person**

dwarf, midget

limb difference (congenital or acquired)

missing limb, limb deficit

person with a curved spine, kyphotic/lordotic/scoliotic (depending on type)

hunchback(ed), humpback(ed)

* The situation with “lame” is difficult and opinions vary. Some disabled people find it acceptable to use it in a disability context (e.g., Hephaestus was a lame god), while others do not like it in any context, because of its metaphorical use as an insult that implies weakness.

** The term “Little People” seems to be a particularly American phenomenon and is used to refer to members of living communities. Like with the capitalized Deaf, it may not be appropriate to an ancient context.

Certain words and terms are not just outdated but are slurs and are thus off-limits, regardless of context. Repeat these words in quoted passages only when absolutely necessary; if possible, paraphrase the quotation and omit these words entirely. Such words include but are not necessarily limited to: retarded/mental retardation; midget; Mongoloid/Mongol; cretin; spastic; and dumb (to refer to a nonspeaking person).

Other words are more complicated. The word “cripple,” for example, has been reclaimed by some in the disability community, where its use is often shortened to “crip.” The word therefore can be used by disabled people but should not be used casually by nondisabled people. References to established concepts like crip time and crip theory are acceptable for everyone in relevant contexts.

Acknowledgments

Thanks to everyone who contributed to the development of this post, including (in alphabetical order): Rachel Carroll; Leah Bernardo-Ciddio; Justin Lorenzo Biggi; David Collins; Emily Dana; Jane Draycott; Maggie Easton; Eric Harvey; Kyle Lewis Jordan; Maia Lee-Chin; Helen Lovatt; Alicia Matz; Kenneth Moore; Emily Rushton; Lilly Sellati; Emily Silbergeld; Chelsi Slotten; and Hannah Vogel. Thanks, too, to Sarah Bond, Clara Bosak-Schroeder, T. H. M. Gellar-Goad, and Candida Moss for their support.

Works Cited

  • Campbell, Fiona Kumari. Contours of Ableism: The Production of Disability and Abledness. London and New York: Palgrave MacMillian, 2009.
  • Chouinard, Vera. “Making Space for Disabling Difference: Challenging Ableist Geographies,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 15 (1997): 379–387. 

Resources

Header image: Return of Hephaestus, c. 430-420 BCE. Image courtesy of Creative Commons.

Alt-text for photo: Cropped headshot of a white woman with long, straight brown hair. She has blue eyes and a crooked nose. She looks into the camera and smiles. She stands in an outdoor location with grass and trees in the background.

Debby Sneed is a lecturer in Classics at California State University, Long Beach. Her research focuses on physical disability in ancient Greece. Her article on accommodations for mobility impaired visitors to ancient Greek healing sanctuaries was recently awarded the Ben Cullen Prize by the journal Antiquity. She has an article forthcoming in Hesperia on disability and infanticide in ancient Greece, as well as an article under review, co-authored with Mason Shrader, that provides an ethical blueprint for the active recruitment and inclusion of disabled students in archaeological fieldwork. She has a PhD in Archaeology from UCLA, an MA in Classics from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and a BA in English and History from the University of Wyoming. She is nondisabled.

Alexandra Morris's picture

Alexandra F. Morris is a PhD student in history at Teesside University. She is currently Postgraduate Student Representative of the School of Social Sciences, Humanities, and Law at Teesside University. Her PhD research focuses on disability during the Hellenistic/Ptolemaic Period, and prior research has focused on disability during pharaonic Egypt. Other research interests include creating more accessible and inclusive museums for the disabled community. She also is interested in Ptolemaic Egypt, Alexander the Great, and ancient Egyptian and Greek art, medicine, politics, and religious practices. She has an MA in Museum Studies from New York University, and an MA in Near Eastern Languages & Civilisations (Egyptology) from the University of Pennsylvania. Her BA is in Archaeological Studies, Anthropology, and Art History with minors in Classics and history from SUNY Potsdam. She has cerebral palsy and dyspraxia.

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