But language is powerful and language is political. And when I or others, whether they use the same language as me or not, discuss the significance of semantics, it is intellectually and culturally irresponsible to trivialize discussions about language as unimportant and shallow. Whether we like it or not, using different language in different contexts with different audiences or interlocutors invariably alters perceptions through nuance, connotation, and cultural baggage than if another type of language had been used.
That is why these discussions about language are not merely important but necessary. The problems engendered by the presence of these discussions arise only when language is used as an almighty litmus test or the means of disempowering an individual, or prioritized as somehow more important than, say, accomplishing actual work that immediately benefits real lives such as removing someone from an abusive situation, finding housing for someone in need of a place to live, or guiding someone toward meaningful, integrated employment. Practicality, pragmatics -- these things weigh far more heavily on me than questions about language.
In the academic setting, it's entirely appropriate to discuss and debate the use of language. But who would be so arrogant as to interrupt a person in crisis in order to correct language because it was the "wrong" language? To be a member of the disability rights movement or the Autistic rights movement, or to be an Autistic activist or advocate or self-advocate is not defined around what language you use to discuss autism and disability. Framing the rights movement in this manner would be an egregious fallacy. There are very good and powerful arguments for why certain language makes more sense in the context of a civil rights discussion (and equally valid ones for other language), but the disability and Autistic rights movements are defined around guiding principles and a vision for social revolution, not homogeneous, mindless use of language.
Every individual has the right to self-determination. That is a hallmark of the disability rights movement, from as early as Ed Roberts and Judy Heumann. That right is inalienable and absolute, which means that every individual has an absolute right to self-determination in the language used and preferred. One's rights end only when they infringe upon the rights of others. There is no right to use bigoted language or language that one knows will upset someone else while that other person is present. Similarly, no one individual ever has the right to coerce other people into changing their preferred language. Yes, we have the right to make arguments and offer reasons for choosing one set of terms as opposed to another, but we never have the right to impose our choices or preferences onto anyone else.
If someone were to stop using certain terminology and begin to use the terminology that I use and prefer, it would be better by a thousand times if that person's choice was conscious and borne of conscience. There are right and wrong reasons for changing language. It is wrong and meaningless to alter your language solely for the sake of pleasing someone else or attempting to pass an imagined litmus test as a true believer and fellow member of the movement. Ultimately, focusing your attention on the actual or perceived attitudes or opinions of others will lead to insecurity, lack of resolve, and potentially self-doubt and self-hatred. It is only positive and constructive to change your language if the decision is one you have made in the absence of peer pressure, and because you have reason, whether or not you can or ever do articulate it, to want that language, to claim that language, and to prefer that language. You might even take pride in your language.
So be careful. Neither my word nor yours nor anyone else's is absolute and infallible, especially when it comes to language. You must be the final judge for yourself. Familiarize yourself with the arguments. You might even read mine. A good argument will both explain its rationale and implore the reader to consider its merits and thus adopt the language argued on the basis of those merits. But ultimately, all arguments are the product of opinion, not truth, not scripture. My arguments and essays about the use of language are my opinion. Other people happen to agree with my opinions. But whatever you do, do not take at face value anything that you hear or read, because there is no language-specific creed to the disability rights movement. Within itself, and even among specific disability groups, there are varying preferences for language, and in connection to the broader disability community far beyond the rights movement, ideas and preferences splinter further. It remains to debate, appropriately, whether such disparity is positive because of its diversity or negative because of its disunity and fragmentation. Perhaps it is even more complex and nuanced than that -- this disparity and range of preferences for types of language creates both positive and negative ramifications for our intersecting communities. Either way, while the power of language is undeniable, it is imperative that those with genuine concern for the rights of others understand language in its full context and refrain from furthering the marginalization of those within the community solely on the basis of the language preferred.
And to those who've felt attacked or marginalized by my own essays, or who've felt that my emphasis has been misplaced, let me add this in closing -- my arguments are exactly that. They are mine, and they represent my opinions alone. They are constantly incomplete and in evolution. But they only represent one strand of thinking. No one has singular claim to "right" when it comes to language, only the obligations of mutual respect for others' preferences and of educating oneself to understand better one's own reasons for language. Beyond that, it is the community's obligation to ensure that no individual or group of individuals creates or holds a monopoly on "correct" terminology. The community must place a priority on emphasizing the pragmatic challenges that we face rather than the linguistic and academic ones.
(I typed this from my phone while on a moving train. Thus, please forgive any typos or weird punctuation. I haven't checked.)