I am not vulnerable. I am Helen.

During the pandemic there was been a lot of use of the word vulnerable… And many of us don’t feel it’s the right choice of language.

“One of the most pervasive and damaging myths in modern liberal societies is the idea that disabled people are ‘the most vulnerable’.  This is a by-product of a culture that still widely associates disability with tragedy and perpetuates an individual analysis for something that is fundamentally structural… Disabled people, truth be told, do not need to be vulnerable… Vulnerability comes when politicians choose to pull the support disabled people need in order to live dignified, fulfilling, independent lives.”

Frances Ryan, Crippled

It brings with it connotations of pity and helplessness and makes it seem like it’s our fault if we die, rather than the societal inequalities around us. As Baroness Campbell said, “We are not vulnerable people. We are in vulnerable situations.”

But the word has been used in link with disability for much longer and it comes with an innate power imbalance between the vulnerable and those who are “helping” us, and that in turns allows for control and abuse to occur, or keep occurring. The word vulnerability brings with it an, often unspoken, idea that someone needs to rescue the person in question. It takes away the opportunity for self empowerment and is generally a regressive, outdated way of thinking about disability.

“The word ‘vulnerable’ is not consistent with the social model* in that it suggests that the disabled person is inherently and inevitably inferior. It is a use of language that locates the essential problem within the person with the impairment, and, in doing so, removes attention from the role played by the socio-economic structures of the system we live under in putting disabled people in situations of risk.”

Ellen Clifford, The War on Disabled People

(*For more about the social model of disability, watch a short video from Scope)

Labelling us as vulnerable is to emphasise the disabled person as being the problem, not the systems and contexts that are creating the vulnerability. And this in turn means the systems that can make us vulnerable aren’t challenged and the power imbalances remain. It also takes a large population with diverse needs, impairments and characteristics and reduces us to a generic population. In short, it erases us.

It can also affect outcomes. When we are labelled as vulnerable, it creates a culture where decisions can be made on our behalf, for our “best interests”. Measures are put in place for a sweeping population of so called ‘vulnerable people’ and in missing the nuance, you end up with a situation that rarely fits anyone. Such as some of the measures we’ve seen implemented around the pandemic.

Using the word vulnerable creates a culture where are lives are deemed to be a small price to pay for the greater good. Our deaths can be excused because of our ‘vulnerabilities’ and, because vulnerable suggests a fixed state, work doesn’t need to be carried out to move us out of the vulnerable category.

In her book about how society treats disabled people, Katharine Quarmby asks why disability hate crimes get missed or categorised as something else:

“One of the key reasons has to be that the victim is labelled as vulnerable.  This labelling does not happen with other forms of hate crime.  By failing to see the motivations for disability hate crime, the attitudes that underpin it, and by putting the responsibility onto the victim by describing him or her as ‘vulnerable’, we are letting those responsible for hate crimes continue t get away with it… By confusing vulnerability with targeted hostility towards the victim – we do not see the crime for what it is.”

Katharine Quarmby

More broadly, by speaking of us with the sweeping term vulnerable, it affirms the idea that we are of lesser human value, less human, and therefore less entitled to our human rights.

Further, such sweeping generalisations reduces us to objects, affecting the way we are treated and reducing us to one characteristic – we are no longer a mother who’s also a keen swimmer and helps out at school, we are now just vulnerable, not even a vulnerable person.

This fixed and blanket way of seeing us also means that the nature of vulnerability is obscured. It misses the fact that vulnerability is as much about the environmental context as it is the individual context. That is to say, you can be vulnerable in one setting, in one context, in one way, and resilient in a different setting or context or way but by calling us vulnerable, you miss these nuances. You ultimately miss our strengths.

Calling us vulnerable denies us our agency and can impinge on our self esteem and sense of worth, which are often already dented as a result of living in a capitalist society which doesn’t value disabled people.

When talking about the word vulnerable and relating it to yourself, Jasper from Wheelie Queer said:

“It reminds me of when you’re getting ready to go through PIP assessments, and things like that and suddenly you’re having to look at yourself through this new lens as weak and all the impairments that you have. It can be quite difficult to associate yourself in that way when you’re used to showing your strength, adapting around the issues that you face.”

Jasper, Wheelie Queer

Further, when we are being described as vulnerable, it becomes harder to feel proud of who we are. It is harder for others to see us as resilient and it reinforces the idea that to be disabled, to be vulnerable in some way, is inevitably a negative experience.

Listening to animals

“Some people talk to animals.  Not many listen though. That’s the problem.”
– A A Milne, Winnie the Pooh

“If a lion could talk, we could not understand him”
– Ludwig Wittgenstein

“Until the lion has its own storyteller, tales of the lion hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
Zimbabwean proverb

John Hollander once wrote that “we name animals, but if any of them name us – dolphins or gorrilas, perhaps – the system has yet to be represented”.  Well, wild elephants do have a word for human being, and it indicates danger.  However, his comment echoes a long thought, general assumption, that humans are the only animals which have a language, or at least that our language is vastly superior.

Language, more so than base communication, has been used as a marker of humanness but the nature of animal communication is so different to ours that we haven’t been able to understand or translate them and hence are unable to understand the complexity.  What we have long failed to accept or consider is that communication and language is going to be geared to life experiences –  for example, if you live in the sea, you need to communicate in a way that can be heard in water.

Whenever humans have tried to teach animals to speak, it has been trying to make them speak as we do.  Human language is seen as the gold standard and this approach has inevitably failed because we have different physiological systems and are not designed to make the same vocalisations. We also fail to think about non audible communications.  If we want to talk to animals, we should listen to the communication that they are sharing.  Animals are talking all around us, we just don’t hear them.

“The research, though still at an early stage, does show that animals communicate, that they do so in a more complex way than we previously believed and that certain characteristics in different species correspond to human language.”
– Eva Meijer

Prairie dog communication has been studied and translated in a way that many other animal languages haven’t been.  Their language is made up from verbs, nouns and adverbs and they can use their words in new combinations to reflect new threats.  It is highly sophisticated and is complemented by body language.  And of course, it’s not just us and prairie dogs who have complex languages.  Whales, octopuses, bees and many birds have a grammar system.

“Animal languages sometimes also have complex structures, can be symbolic and abstract, and can refer to situations in the past or the future, or beyond the reach of animals in some other way.”
– Eva Meijer

Chimps use numerous gestures and vocalisations to communicate – by 2015, 66 vocalisations and 88 gestures had been mapped to compile a dictionary.  For example, nibbling on a leaf is an invitation to flirt!

Elephants are thought to have an extensive language which can express information about emotions, intentions and physical characteristics.  A zoo born elephant called Batyr sadly never met another elephant and possibly driven by loneliness, he learnt to say over 20 sentences which included swearing and ‘Batyr is good’.  He could change the sound of his name depending on his mood and as well as mimicking humans, he could also mimic the sounds of dogs and mice.

But of course, communication is not just made through vocalisations.  Animals communicate through body language, behaviour, scent and chemicals.  Hyenas communicate by making use of scent signals from their anal glands.  Its well known that dogs communicate in the same way and for some animals, urine and excrement are a way of sharing information.  For example, wombat poo (which is cubed) provides details about the individual including sex and whether a female is in heat.

“Colour in fish is believed to be a complex language that humans still know little about… The mantis shrimp communicates using colours and has twelve colour channels, while humans have only three.”
– Meijer

Honeybees communicate through dance and chemical signals.  Whilst it’s fairly common knowledge that their dance passes on information about which direction the pollen is, it can also give details about distance, how much nectar there is and dance to decide where the best location is for a new nest.  The latter involves telling the rest of the hive how good a new spot is – the better the location, the longer the dance. 

Sharks make the water move in certain ways to communicate with other sharks, as well as using sound, scent and electrical signals. 

When it comes to bats, we know they make use of echolocation to navigate and that these high pitched squeaks are too high for us to hear.  In addition to those, they make other vocalisations that we cannot hear without the help of technology.  Now that equipment has improved, it has been discovered that their language is complicated.  It’s actually thought that bats are the mammals with the most complex vocal communicators, after humans.

It’s not just bats that have vocalisations out of our hearing range.  Mice, moths, grasshoppers and other insects all have their own communication which until recently, we were oblivious to.

“The more we learn about animal communication, the more complex it appears to be… Instead of defining whether non-human animal forms of communication fit into the frame of what humans define as ‘language’, we should instead pay attention to what they are saying and begin investigating what language is and could be from there.”
– Meijer

Further reading