disability linguistics

What Jon Henner and Octavian Robinson's crip linguistics taught me. An ode to Jon, who recently passed.

This blog post is about the paper Unsettling Languages, Unruly Bodyminds: A Crip Linguistics Manifesto, by Jon Henner and Octavian Robinson. Linking critical disability theory, history and linguistics, they describe how linguistics fails to include multi-modal languaging and disabled languagers, from curricula and research to the way we discuss language. They draw connections to other subfields with similar observations and call for us to crip linguistics by centering those at the margins and valuing all types of languaging.

This paper and Jon Henner's presence on the internet have profoundly impacted my thoughts on disability justice, linguistics and myself. I continue to share the crip linguistics paper with disabled friends, both academic and not, and in fact I originally recorded an audio version of the pre-print for a disabled friend who finds it easier to listen to papers than to read them.

Jon passed away on August 14th, 2023, and is sorely missed by pretty much everyone he crossed paths with. There is a celebration of life scheduled for October 14th in Greensboro, North Carolina, USA, and contributions to the GoFundMe (originally for his medical expenses, now to help with the family's medical debt) are welcome. I regret that I wasn't able to get this draft out quick enough for him to read it; it's been languishing in my draft graveyard since 2021, but I am resurrecting it now in his honour. May his memory be a revolution.

The narrowness of status quo linguistics

One of the central theses of crip linguistics is that existing linguistics teaching and applied linguistics continues a long-standing tradition of

  1. marginalizing certain types of languaging and languagers (e.g., modalities other than speech and writing, non-prestige dialectal variation, etc.);
  2. constructing an idealized version of language that disorders some types of languaging (especially disabled languaging); and
  3. separating language from the people who produce it, as if it were coherent to do this

I've seen evidence of the patterns they mention in my own undergraduate linguistics career: my training in analyzing or engaging with signed languages was minimal, and as they say in the paper, I did probably learn more about animal acquisition of gestures than of actual signed languages like ASL, the primary signed language where I lived then. Most of the other modalities mentioned in the paper (Augmentative and Alternative Communication and ProTactile, for instance) were never mentioned in my classes at all. This is rather a shame, because like some speaking autistic people, I also use AAC from time to time, but I only learned of its existence from disabled people on the internet and not from my linguistics degree years earlier.

Similarly, most of my peer linguists-in-training wanted to become speech language pathologists, but I never heard any critiques of speech language pathology, about its aims to "correct" and "fix" languaging. It was taken for granted, as a neutral fact, that some disabled people have "disordered" languaging that needs to be corrected. Henner and Robinson posit instead that it is social perceptions of disability that disorder language use, and that language is "not inherently disordered, although impairments may exist."

Disability and race and gender and...

The idea that no kind of languaging is inherently disordered neatly extends to other forms of languaging that are treated as in need of correction, e.g., gender-associated language (like vocal fry), the entire industry of "accent reduction," (beautifully critiqued in JPB Gerald's book Antisocial Language Teaching: English and the Pervasive Pathology of Whiteness), and more.

Raciolinguistics and queer linguistics also make very similar claims about it being the social perceptions of a group of people that disorders their languaging in the eyes of society. One of my favourite and most fucked up examples of this is Kutlu et al.'s 2022 paper, The Impact of Race on Speech Perception and Accentedness Judgements in Racially Diverse and Non-diverse Groups. They found that listeners behave differently when presented with audio paired with differently-racialized faces - they gave lower intelligibility scores and became worse at speech transcription when the same audio of any English variety (American, British or Indian) was paired with a South Asian face. By drawing parallels between disabled languagers and languagers minoritized along these other axes - race, class, gender, sexuality, etc. - Henner and Robinson show us how we as a field keep replicating society's relegation of all these languagers to the margins.

It is interesting that all of the subfields that point out this power dynamic fall under the umbrella of sociolinguistics. Most subfields of linguistics that don't use a sociolinguistic lens don't name or notice these power dynamics at all, because they often operate on the basis that language production and perception can be separated from the embodiment of the languager producing or perceiving said language. Henner and Robinson, the whole field of sociolinguistics, and almost everyone in a marginalized bodymind, know that this isn't possible without erasures and idealization along the same hegemonic lines as always.

So how do we crip linguistics?

The 3 recommendations that I've pulled out from my reading of the paper are:

  1. Value and embrace all types of languaging and languagers

    This means no modality chauvinism (privileging speaking and writing over other modalities), no pathologizing certain kinds of language use, and recognizing that there is a rich ecosystem of what counts under languaging, some of which is actually invisible to abled people, e.g., concepts we know from critical disability theory such as crip time, care work, access intimacy, etc.

  2. Critically examine the ableist assumptions in "practices, attitudes and rhetorics around language"

    Among other things, this means recognizing that to separate language from languagers is to leave out several dimensions of how communication actually works in a society, and it leaves you unable to critique the assumptions embedded in doing so.

  3. Use disidentification ("identifying with but not as") to develop coalitional theories

    Coalitional theories built through communication across subfields of linguistics would be stronger in their ability to account for all manners of difference. I see the idea of disidentification as closely connnected to another one of my favourite papers - Liu and Shange's Toward Thick Solidarity, which they define as "a kind of solidarity that mobilizes empathy in ways that do not gloss over difference, but rather pushes into the specificity, irreducibility, and incommensurability of racialized experiences."

The final recommendation I want to make to any linguistics educators reading this blog post is to put the crip linguistics paper on your syllabus and to work with students to read all linguistics literature through this critical lens. A crip linguistics lens can be one of several tools in your critical toolbox towards doing better linguistics by paying more attention to gaps we may often take for granted. This paper can help us sharpen our skills in dismantling ableist logic, re-centring languagers at the margins, and incorporating disability justice concepts like care work and crip time into our linguistic practice (and lives!). The paper's final sentence says it best: "disabled people do really cool things with language if people would pay attention."

Note: If you're looking for any of the papers I mention in this post and you don't have access, email me for a PDF.