Putting aside for a moment the controversy over “person-first” language, I wonder if we can at all agree that the following expressions should be banished:
- “The disabled”
- “The mentally ill”
- “The homeless”
- “The poor”
- All other uses of mass nouns to describe minority demographics that are seen as the object of care and concern.
Even worse is the use of such mass nouns with possessives, like “the nation’s mentally ill.”
To me, these phrases turn groups of individuals into an undifferentiated blob that is to be somehow “dealt with” or otherwise cared for by the rest of the population (“population” is also a mass noun, but since “population” includes everyone in a particular place, it doesn’t come across as demeaning to me).
I can imagine cases in which that connotation wouldn’t be there. For example, people tend to view certain kinds of social movements as masses (“the Army,” “Anonymous,” “the resistance”). If you’re saying something like “the disabled should riot in response to proposed Medicaid cuts,” that seems relatively fine because the use of mass nouns is based more on perceived cohesion than on lack of agency.
But more often than not, mass nouns are instead used to portray a group as a passive object of concern and charity. Consider, for instance, a line from this story on the warehousing of people with mental illness in nursing homes:
“As states have closed down mental hospitals, they’ve struggled to find housing for the mentally ill. In Florida, assisted-living facilities have become the de facto solution.”
Here, “the mentally ill” appears to be defined as people whose long-term residence was, until now, “mental hospitals.” It doesn’t include the large numbers of people with psychiatric disabilities who were living anywhere else, either independently or with their family or without permanent shelter. This kind of attitude makes it harder for people to “come out” as having a mental illness because they’re afraid of this sort of stereotype: “if you’ve got a mental illness, why do you have a job? Either you’re not really mentally ill, or you shouldn’t be working and living independently.”
Moreover, “the mentally ill” aren’t having trouble finding housing with help from the state, the state is having trouble finding housing for them. Overall the question the article seems to be asking is “what should be done about the mentally ill?”
It’s telling that, despite the fact that the reporter actually came into contact with one of the residents of the facilities mentioned in the article, the only quotes from her that make it into the article are a banal conversation in which she asked her son how her grandchildren were doing. The only reason I can see for including that conversation in the article at all are as an attempt to “humanize” her (“she has a family and even knows that they exist!”). But she wouldn’t have to be “humanized” in such a way if the journalist had actually discussed her as if she was a human being all along, including by allowing her to have an opinion. Imagine if he’d instead asked for her opinion about the place she lived and she complained about it in the same way that anyone else would complain about a similar living situation. Wouldn’t that make her seem even more “human”? You can program a robot to ask polite questions about people’s kids; it takes a living, feeling being to complain.
This is exactly the kind of attitude that I tend to associate with use of mass nouns: “the mentally ill are people just like us, except totally helpless. We should do something about them so that they have a place to be and are protected from abuse and mistreatment.” Not “it’s horrible that people with mental illness are forced to live in violent neighborhoods and facilities where their lives are controlled by abusive people. We (i.e. a coalition of people with mental illness and allies) should pass better laws to ensure that people who need housing assistance and services as a result of mental illness aren’t deprived of the right to live in a safe place and exercise control over their own lives.”
I don’t really care that much if someone says that I “have ASD.” I will correct someone if they call me “mentally ill” instead of saying I “have a mental illness,” but overall I won’t mind. I get a bit distressed if someone calls me “disabled” instead of saying I “have a disability,” since to me “disabled” sounds like I can barely do anything useful (like being a “disabled vehicle” or “on the disabled list”), but again, I can get past that if it’s sufficiently clear that that’s not what the person is trying to say. But I really hate when people use mass nouns.