What’s the problem with the word broken?

For my inaugural post, an explanation of the blog’s title seems fitting.

I have heard the word broken used to describe people’s hearts, minds, bodies, and spirits, each time evoking a cringe from me. When this label is leveled in my direction, I am filled with indignation. Cars, china plates, and even bones are broken, but never human beings.

I object most strongly when broken is used to describe disabled people, either by others or the disabled person themselves. Once an instinctive response it has now become fleshed out with theory and meaning. The central problem is not solely in and of itself the word broken, but the inherent implication that the described thing is in need of fixing. A secondary connotation is that the item is no longer of use. Broken plates are either glued together or thrown away. Broken cars go off to the mechanic or junk yard. Broken bones are set so they can mend. So, if a person is broken, does that mean they need to be fixed or discarded?

The things that we fix are things that are considered to be wrong in their current state. While wrong has become synonymous with different in many cases, it actually only means one entity is not like another entity. Nobody can argue we are not different from the group known as nondisabled for there are things we cannot do, bodies unlike most, or behaviors that are out of the ordinary. Broken, though, adds the implication that the difference is wrong.

My face looks like that of no other human definitely fitting the criteria of different. Does this mean my face is wrong? Can a face even be wrong? I am blind and interact with my world differently from sighted people. Does this somehow make me wrong? Unlike answers on a test, there is no ultimate truth about how human beings must be, look, or behave. WE accept variations in dress, cultural habits, hair color, social customs, and language. While we recognize them as different, we do not consider them wrong. How then can there be other variations considered unacceptable? Who decides where to draw that line?

If a broken thing cannot be fixed, we do one of two things: throw it away or store it in some dark corner in case circumstances somehow transform it into a useful resource. (My grandfather with broken appliances shoved into every cobwebbed corner of the basement comes to mind. He never knew when a part of one of those appliances might fix another.) The idea of discarding human beings is so abhorrent to me that the reasoning against it seems obvious. Yet, when I try to articulate it, I cannot quite find the words. It seems to boil down to human value: I believe every person has some value – some use. To me broken strips any value away implying usefulness will occur if the person can be fixed enough or circumstances change.

I am usually not the language police. Phrases like physically challenged or differently abled make me roll my eyes. My atoms are not in danger of disintegrating into their component protons, neutrons and electrons. Neither do I have antennae protruding from the top of my head endowing me with some unusual ability. Disabled works fine for me since I am not able to see. Broken, however, assigns some value to my disabled state. AS I object to being thought of as child-like, incompetent, or needy, I object to being thought of as broken. I am not a car, plate, or bone.

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About Jen

After acquiring a degree from Vassar College in psychology, I moved to Western Mass where I ran a peer mentoring network for disabled college students as well as activism and organizing around disability issues. I also conducted research on disabled women’s body image. An Upstate New York native, I eventually followed my heliotropic nature to the sun of Southern California. I divide my time between writing (disability fiction and essays) along with moderating San Diego Bisexual Forum which is one of the oldest groups of its kind in the country. In my off hours I can often be found in my neighborhood live music venue enjoying our local talent.

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