Our beliefs about disability are shaped by the culture we come from and the language we speak. In a multicultural society like Australia, our rich cultural diversity complicates cross-cultural understandings of disability. In 2016, there were over 300 languages spoken in Australian homes, with more than one-fifth of Australians speaking a language other than English at home. While services attempt to keep up with this demand by providing information in different languages, there are cultural nuances that are often lost in translation.
Speak My Language encompasses up to 25 languages. We are in the process of producing culturally relevant podcast and radio content about living well with a disability. While the disability sector is translating mainstream material for people from diverse linguistic backgrounds, this content does not speak to the unique experiences of ethnically diverse people. There is no broad-brush experience of disability, just as there is no blanket approach to addressing multiculturalism.
The cross-cultural challenges of translating terms referring to disability presented itself early in the Speak My Language program. One of our language reviewers noted that the previous word used for disability amongst Chinese communities (残废) is now considered outdated and offensive, because it is linked to the idea of being “useless.” The preferred word now in use (残障) emphasises the dignity of the person with a disability. However, if you were to search up the meaning of either word in a English-Simplified Chinese dictionary, both would simply translate to “Disability.”
This is not an issue unique to this specific language. Sadly, many cultures view disability as a curse, burden or divine punishment - and while community attitudes do change, the language may not keep up.
Even in English, the word "disability" is loaded with biases and constraints. The word "disabled" comes from the Middle English disablen "to deprive of legal rights." The prefix "dis" speaks to this sense of deprivation. It does not convey acceptance of the variation and difference that is part of the human experience. We see this in the medical model that views disability as something to be treated or remedied. This has come with its own set of cultural challenges. This medical model emphasises that the person with the disability requires a cure or intervention, rather than the systems and structures that limit the lives of people with disabilities. As a result, people with disabilities are viewed as abnormal and defective.
On the other hand, most Indigenous cultures around the world do not have a word for disability. Here in Australia, the majority of Aboriginal languages do not have a word to classify disability into "deficit terms." Instead, their languages contain a few specific terms for various forms of impairment, for example, words to describe those who lack vision or mobility. As a result, these cultures tend to be more inclusive of people with disabilities. A person is not defined or excluded based on their physical difference.
Yet, challenges arise when First Nations peoples need to access mainstream disability services that rely on words that don’t exist in their culture. They are forced to adopt labels and ways of thinking that do not resonate within their communities. Over in New Zealand, 200 new words have been added to the Maori language to address mental health and disability. The new word for disability is whaikaha, which means to “have strength, to have ability, otherly-abled, enabled”. The translation of autism is takiwatanga, meaning “his or her own time and space.” It is clear that language referring to disability is important for representation, but as is the case with these new Maori terms, these terms should ensure inclusivity and dignity.
For a multicultural nation like Australia, many people straddle two cultures and two languages on a daily basis. When we talk about disability to those from different linguistic backgrounds, we need to find ways to speak to their cultural understandings as well as their human dignity.