Lessons in language

I work on a casual basis at a couple of the local universities (all going well, by the end of the first semester next year, I will have worked at all three major universities in town – nothing like spreading myself around / too thin). In the semester just ended, I taught a course in professional ethics for students working in disability. My expertise is on the ethics side of that course, and I have been very, very grateful for the knowledge I’ve picked up around about the place from people writing specifically about living with disability.

I ran into problems in the last couple of lectures, with defining autonomy. It’s a critical value in Western liberal democracies, and highly relevant to people working in disability. It can be a yardstick, a constant question that can guide practice – does my action enhance or compromise the autonomy of the person I am working with?

But the students in this course are completely new to ethical analysis, and often they aren’t even sure what autonomy is. So I needed to come up with definitions for them, and given that they are normally very applied workers and thinkers (c/f the philosophy and political theory students I normally work with), the definitions need to be structured in a way that helps the students to connect with them. This is a common issue in professional and business ethics courses; it’s usually the first time many of the students have engaged with any formal study of ethics. Often it’s simply a matter of providing words and a conceptual structure so the students can articulate knowledge they already have intuitively, but in order to do that, I find it easiest to flesh out the very conceptual definitions of autonomy with more applied definitions.

And that’s where I suddenly realised that all the imagery I customarily used when talking about autonomy was just … wrong.

Very formally, and in very bare bones fashion, autonomy is the capacity for self-government. It’s the freedom to make and to act on choices.

Whatever. Often the bare bones definition doesn’t give students a sense of why autonomy is important. So from there, I talk about the idea of people being autonomous adults, of being independent and recognised as independent operators, of having a sense of themselves as being independent and worthy of respect, of being equals who are able to stand tall and look the other in the eye.

Ouch. As I opened my mouth to utter this phrase, one that I’ve used for many years, I suddenly realised that it was just wrong, not only for that class in particular, but for use in general. I stood there gaping like a goldfish, and eventually told the students that I was lost for words, and explained why.

I’m not likely to be teaching that particular course again: I was filling in for a semester while the person who usually teaches the course was on study leave. But given my areas of study, I’m highly likely to be lecturing on the value of autonomy again. So right now I’m working hard on coming up with something better to say. Any suggestions will be gratefully received, and carefully considered.


5 responses to “Lessons in language

  1. I’ve used that phrase myself and never seen the ableism inherent in it – thanks. I’m now, like you, trying to think of a adequate replacement.

    It carries with it connotations of choosing to present yourself as an equal; autonomy isn’t offered – it’s claimed. There’s an element of resistance and self empowerment captured by the phrase.

    “equals who present their own choices to other people” lacks the poetry of the original but it’s as good as I can do – I’d be interested in others suggestions.

  2. Interesting situation. My view is that words don’t mean, they evoke; so you go with the metaphor.

    Autonomy =having your own hand on the tiller. That works for me, but then I’m a canoe person.

  3. Hi Deborah, I hope this is not too tangential but I think there are some pitfalls in using independence and autonomy as near synonyms. One may be completely dependent and still retain autonomy in directing one’s life. Dependency is a very vexed concept in disability because obviously there are some people with disabilities who must rely on others to a greater or lesser extent, and not merely for physical assistance, but there is a tendency for dependency to be seen as a negative and also for the able bodied to be seen as completely independent when of course, noone is. There is an interesting discussion of dependency at: http://jlcds.lupjournals.org/default.aspx?content=0102intro
    The linked article by Cal Montgomery is essential reading too IMO.

  4. Yes. That’s partly why I struggle to define it in terms that students will understand. I very much want to avoid conflating autonomy and independence, although obviously there is a relationship between the two. To me, autonomy has overtones of security – it’s not enough to be able to make independent choices, but that you need to be secure in the structures that enable you to make and act on your choices. So a person with physical disabilities may be dependent on her carer to enable her daily life, but if she is secure in the knowledge that the carer will be there to help her with the physical necessities of life, then she has a degree of autonomy. Maybe. I’m not sure whether that thought works, because I’m still working it through. Autonomy is an altogether richer notion than independence. And that’s why I need a third and fourth set of explanations, to capture some of what I was trying to say about standing (bad word, again….).

    Many thanks for the links. Having read them I can see that I will want to put less stress on independence, or at least make sure that it is tied in with the notion of security-of-independence / security in making choices. I probably want some flavour of equality in there too, and not in some minimalist way.

  5. That is a very good point about security and having that gives predictability and the ability to plan ahead -it makes me think of all of those cases Lauredhel has been pointing out about lifts suddenly not working or only working during certain hours. I am very bad at describing abstract concepts in more concrete terms so I’m not of much assistance. The only thing I can think of is to give examples, but that doesn’t help with the definition.

    The autonomous person also gets to negotiate whenever personal boundaries have to be crossed. It is sadly much easier for me to think of the ways in which autonomy is infringed upon and it often involves the imposition of strategies of care without the ongoing interpersonal negotiation the TAB take for granted in their relationships. Negotiation is a bit of a cold word but I mean the kind of subtle ways that we signal each other verbally and nonverbally when we enter into each others intimate space in some way. Having one’s hair brushed or someone picking up our wallet to pay for our shopping can feel horribly violating or cooperative and warm depending on the quality of the interaction before and during. Sorry to waffle!