As someone with a chronic illness that, while mostly invisible, can sometimes be quite debilitating, I’ve been following a new blog called FWD/Forward: Feminists with Disabilities. FWD has had some mostly good posts lately on ableist language, discussing how and why we use words like “lame” in ordinary conversation. Because some people I know still even use the word “retarded” to express dislike of something, I posted FWD’s post on it to FB, where I hope lots of folks who wouldn’t usually read FWD saw it. But I do have some issues myself with some of the language used on FWD, particularly the way many individuals in the disabled community rely on the spoons metaphor.
The spoons metaphor was developed by a woman named Christine Miserandino to explain to a non-disabled friend how her disease prevented her from doing all of the things she wanted to do each day. “Most people start the day with unlimited amount of possibilities, and energy to do whatever they desire, especially young people. For the most part, they do not need to worry about the effects of their actions. So for my explanation, I used spoons to convey this point. I wanted something for her to actually hold, for me to then take away, since most people who get sick feel a “loss” of a life they once knew. If I was in control of taking away the spoons, then she would know what it feels like to have someone or something else, in this case Lupus, being in control.” Miserandino continues, “I explained that when you are healthy you expect to have a never-ending supply of “spoons”. But when you have to now plan your day, you need to know exactly how many “spoons” you are starting with. It doesn’t guarantee that you might not lose some along the way, but at least it helps to know where you are starting. [....] When she jumped right into getting ready for work as her first task of the morning, I cut her off and took away a spoon. I practically jumped down her throat. I said ” No! You don’t just get up. You have to crack open your eyes, and then realize you are late. You didn’t sleep well the night before. You have to crawl out of bed, and then you have to make your self something to eat before you can do anything else, because if you don’t, you can’t take your medicine, and if you don’t take your medicine you might as well give up all your spoons for today and tomorrow too.” I quickly took away a spoon and she realized she hasn’t even gotten dressed yet. Showering cost her spoon, just for washing her hair and shaving her legs. Reaching high and low that early in the morning could actually cost more than one spoon, but I figured I would give her a break; I didn’t want to scare her right away. Getting dressed was worth another spoon.”
Many disabled people have grabbed onto the spoons metaphor as an everyday way to explain a lack of energy or mental or physical ability. My question is, when we are trying to demystify/de-stigmatize/de-euphemize disability, why are we in fact hiding behind this rather weak metaphor? Telling a colleague that I’m “out of spoons” for the day doesn’t explain what’s going on with me the same way saying that I’m in too much pain to walk three blocks for coffee does. Its cuteness might serve to alleviate concern in non-disabled colleagues about our abilities to get our jobs done, but in doing so it lessens considerably our colleagues’ actual understanding of our disabilities. Hiding behind the generalization and euphemism of the spoons makes our disabilities even more invisible than they might be; it becomes synonymous with the phrases “I’m beat,” “I’m out of steam,” and “I’m knackered”–all of which mean essentially the same thing–lack of energy–to the non-disabled community. How long will it be before everyone starts to end a day of shopping by plopping down in Starbucks with “Phew–I’m out of spoons. Decaf latte, please.”
Just as we reject ableist language that misuses terms or imbues them with offensive meanings, we should also be rejecting inaccurate, vague, and juvenile language that glosses over the realities of our lives. A metaphor can only go so far, and while this one might be useful for teaching children about our limitations, it doesn’t have any place in an adult conversation about disability.