24 March 2013

Plea for Help from Arabists and Disability Activists

Dear fellow Arabists, disability rights activists, and critical disability theorists:

Assuming everything goes according to plan, I will be abroad in the Middle East (most likely Egypt) in a year from now for Spring 2014. I'd like to try an experiment of writing my blog posts for Autistic Hoya while abroad in Arabic (and I don't mean writing in English first, then translating; I mean, writing in Arabic). This is both purely for (masochistic?) fun and to help improve my language abilities.

Now as some of you may already know (e.g. the Arabic speakers and Arabists reading this), Arabic lexicon operates off of what is known as the "root" system, where similar concepts and words related to those concepts share the same root letters. Most roots are three-letter roots (though there are apparently four, five, and six letter roots as well). Root letters always appear in order, but may have other consonants and vowels (and suffixes and prefixes) inserted between and around them.

The root letters for "disability" are "عوق" or "3-w-q", so "disabled" is "معاق" or "m3aq." And that's fine with me. In fact, I used this word and permutations of this root in a solo presentation for Arabic class in the fall on the history of the disability rights movement, in a group presentation for Arabic class this spring on Ed Roberts's life, and in a solo presentation for my other Arabic class this spring about violence and murder of disabled people by family members.

Now, given that in addition to writing about disability in general, I also tend to write a lot about autism in particular, I'm running into a problem with the word for "autism" that appears to be in use in Arabic (including on the website of a Center for Autism in Jordan). This word is "التوحد" or "al-tawahhud," which uses the root letters "وحد" (w-h-d) attached to the concept of oneness, aloneness, etc.

(For reference, the Egyptian Autistic Society's name in Arabic is جمعية التوحد المصرية or Jam3iat Al-Tawahhud Al-Misriyya. It uses that word. So do the other centers, institutes, etc. related to autism in countries where Arabic is the predominant language.)

Naturally, I find this offensive.

While in English, the word "autism" derives from the Greek root "auto," meaning "self," as in "drawn into the self," or "trapped inside the self," which is equally offensive and for the same reasons, our language simply doesn't draw on such etymological roots as much as Arabic does (with roots embedded into every noun and verb and adjective and adverb, and even prepositions). The word "autism" has largely been reclaimed by actually autistic people.

So basically, here's my dilemma.

I'm not Arab nor am I a native Arabic speaker.

I am, however, Autistic.

And I'd like to refer to myself and to people like me, using a word that I don't find horrendously offensive and that, within the context of the Arabic language, doesn't have such terrible associations (with regard to what they imply about autistic people.)

I remember my friend Kassiane, who's been studying ASL for a long time, mentioning that there's only one sign she's ever seen for "autism/autistic" that isn't offensive, that doesn't imply brokenness or somehow being locked inside one's mind (which is a horrifically offensive and ableist idea). She said that while she defers to actually Deaf people on pretty much everything else ASL-related, she refuses to refer to herself in an offensive way.

Thus so here. I'm not intending to be appropriative or to barge into the communities of Arabs and native Arabic speakers as some type of knight in shining armor on a white horse with my idea of "Here is a Much Better Word to use because I Am Superior," but rather to find a word that uses a root or roots that are not offensive and don't carry the connotation of being trapped inside my mind and only aware that I, Lydia Brown, and no one else in the world at all, exist.

Here are my preliminary thoughts.

I'm thinking that if I/we/you can't produce a single word (noun and nisbah adjective forms, perhaps) for autism and autistic, perhaps it would be best to use some combinations of words as in, in a phrase, either noun-adjective or iDaafa construction.

This root, حرف, or h-r-f, has to do with slanting off of something or deviating from things, according to the extremely long entry in the Hans Weber dictionary. Some examples of this root are as follows:

الانحراف (al-inhiraaf) -- (noun) deviation or digression
انحرف (inharrafa) -- (verb) to diverge, deviate, depart, digress

I like the idea of using something deriving from that root, though I think it would best be used in a noun-adjective phrase or an iDaafa.

Here's the part where I, as a humble second-year undergraduate Arabic major, turn the task over to collaboration with Arabists, actual native Arabic speakers, and other disability rights/theory folks, for suggestions and actual work.

Please make good use of the comments section. If your browser won't allow you to comment using Blogger, shoot me an email to lydia (at) autistichoya.com with the name to publish your comment under, so I can have all the comments for this discussion posted to one place.

And if you know of any other efforts around this idea that I don't know about (either because I'm not fluent in Arabic and tend to flounder when searching the internet in Arabic mode or because they're occurring in some private discussions somewhere), please do share!

Thank you!


  1. My two cents: Hmmm... that's a tough one, but I suppose I don't know enough about autism to understand why the Arabic term is offensive. I DO know a lot about Arabic, though, and the Arabic term توحد has never stricken me as being particularly nefarious, at least not any more so than the term معاق, which you apparently doesn't have a problem with.

    I also don't understand why you would seem to regard the English term itself as being "terribly offensive" yet look for alternative phraseology when using a language not her own. You say that the word "autism" has been "largely been reclaimed by actually autistic people"... why do you presume that this is not in fact the case with the Arabic term? As you yourself testify, the term توحد is in fact the preferred term of the relevant groups involved in disability rights in the Arab world.

  2. A friend in Morocco wanted to reply to you, but was unable to post here for some reason. He emailed his comment to me and asked if I could send it on, so I will try to post here below:

    From Abdelmjid Seghir:


    A friend of mine suggested that I take a look at this post and comment if I wanted to.Apparently, I do want to.

    To my understanding you're looking for a word for autism/autistic in Arabic to replace "tawahhud", which you deem offensive. Well, as a native speaker of Arabic, I must confess that I have never felt that the word "tawahhud" was offensive until you pointed out to it in this post.

    You mentioned the root (h-r-f) and said it could be a good alternative. However, following the same logic that made you think tawahhud was offensive, a word derived from the root (h-r-f) would be even more offensive. Actually, the root (h-r-f) and its derivations such as (al-inhiraaf) have much stronger negative connotations. In addition to "deviation" and "to diverge", (al-inhiraaf) could also mean "delinquency" or "homosexuality." Therefore, using a word from the same root would be either aggressive or misleading.

    I can't think of an alternative right now. I just wanted to let you know about my remark. If anything pops up, I'll make sure to come back and share it with you.

    Thank you and good luck,

  3. Ah yes, the above comment mentions something I forgot. I totally agree with the above comment's take on the root حرف--it is DEFINITELY more inherently negative than وحد. In fact, the word انحراف that you use as an example is most often used to mean "perversion."

  4. Kassiane and I say exactly the same thing about the ASL for Autism/Autistic. Interesting. I wonder if we have the same sign in mind?

    1. Oh dear! I think I may have actually meant you when I wrote this post. Either that, or you two really do say the exact same thing. ...why do I always get some fact wrong.

    2. She and I do have a lot in common. If you meant me, I'm flattered that you confused me with her. If you meant her, I'm still fascinated at how much the two of us have in common. It's all good!

  5. Going by the root principal in English, the root 'auto' is the same root that gives us 'autonomous' and 'automatic', both of which are arguably very good things.

    Maybe there are similar examples in Arabic of the root being used in positive ways?

  6. Hi Lydia. I'm curious as to what efforts Arabic-speaking activists have made to reclaim "al-tawahhud." Would a root meaning of aloneness necessarily connote being trapped inside one's own mind? Perhaps it could acquire more positive connotations such as being able to work well by oneself, etc.


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