Katawa Shoujo and a How to Guide for Referring to Individuals with Disabilities
I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but during my lifetime, we experienced the transition into a politically correct society, and also the backlash against political correctness. When we’re overly sensitive, we risk not only alienating people, but also making some stand out because of certain characteristics they possess.
The reason I bring this up now is because last week saw the release of the highly anticipated visual novel, Katawa Shoujo. It’s available as a free download, and though the adult content has scared me off from trying it out (please feel free to ring its praises, or not, in the comments), I did play some of the demo version and certainly found the idea intriguing – a visual novel in which the characters are young ladies with disabilities.
Lauren Orsini has written extensively about how the game portrays those with disabilities, and other bloggers have given further comments about the games (including a wonderful personal reflection by 2DT). My addition to these writings will, I hope, connect the visual novel lover in you with a real life application – how to sensitively refer to individuals with the disabilities given in the game. Instead of being PC, the suggestions below largely reflect the idea of people-first language, which avoids an emphasis on disabilities:
Emi Ibarazaki – Emi has had both of her legs amputated and uses prosthetic limbs. This is a tricky landscape when it comes to semantics, as the amputee community still seems to be looking for comfortable terminology. To follow the idea of emphasizing that Emi is an individual, not a “disabled person,” one could say she is a “person who uses prosthetics or prosthetic legs.” Similarly, if she used a wheelchair, Emi would be a “person who uses a wheelchair” (note that she’s not “confined” – United Spinal (referenced below) states that a wheelchair is “liberating, not confining”). When referring to the amputated legs, though it might sound strange, “stump” is often correctly used. Some who don’t like that term might say “residual limb” instead.
Hanako Ikezawa – Hanako is a shy girl with extensive burns, or disfigurement, on her body. She is not a burn victim, but instead, as the RTCIL suggests, a “young woman with burns” and a “burn survivor.” Since Hanako is shy, it’s best to avoid speaking about her burns. The same goes with any person with a disability; as with anyone, the openness in which personal items are discussed differs from individual to individual, with many preferring to only speak of them when he or she gets to know you. Hanako and real-life individuals with burns may feel stigmatized; involve them in everyday activities and discussion to avoid perpetuating these feelings.
Lilly Satou – Lilly is a young woman who is blind. It’s perfectly fine to use the word “blind,” but only if that individual cannot see at all, and again in conjunction with the idea of putting the person first. Otherwise, you can say that Lilly is a “person with a vision impairment.” You can also express varying degrees of vision impairment with terminology like “low vision.” If you have questions about assisting a person who is blind, United Spinal suggests identifying yourself, offering assistance, and describing the physical setting as you walk. And don’t feel embarrassed if you use idioms like “see you later” or “good to see you” – people with vision impairment are likely to use those as well.
Rin Tezuka – Rin is a character who was born without arms. Don’t refer to this as a “birth defect.” “Congenital disability” or “developmental disability” is preferred. Further, remember to again emphasize that individuals have disabilities instead of saying that they are disabled, which emphasizes the disability, and avoid use of the word handicap. Also, don’t use euphemisms like “physically challenged” or “differently abled,” which one might be tempting to use to describe Rin, since she is an artist. And of course, Rin is not “suffering” with a congenital disability; neither should she be called abnormal or a victim.
Shizune Hakamichi – Shizune is neither able to hear nor speak. As you may know, such individuals are part of a large, culturally rich community; in fact, there’s such pride in being deaf that the members of the group write the word with a capital “D.” Because of this, “hearing impaired” may be an offensive term (compare to “vision impairment” with Lilly). For those who retain some hearing ability, “hard of hearing” is fine. Shizune is also a person who does not speak. Avoid the outdated term, “mute,” and the more obviously insulting word, “dumb.” And avoiding using the phrase “the deaf” (or in Lilly’s case, “the blind”), as this changes the focus from the individual to a generalization about a disability.
Shiina Mikado – Wikipedia states that it’s unclear whether or not Shiina, the final major character, is a person with a disability, though ADHD and OCD have both been suggested. Though I think many anime fans might embrace the idea of being hyperactive, it’s more sensitive to again say that Shiina is a person with ADHD (if that’s the case). Some unkind posts present ideas that lead me to this conclusion: she may also have a learning disability. Again, use first person language and avoid words like “slow learner.” As for Shiina’s role as Shizune’s interpreter, you would speak to Shiina when you are addressing Shiina and to Shizune when you’re addressing Shizune (Shiina is Shiina!), regardless of the interpreting.
The suggestions above may seem a bit overwhelming, but most of the ideas can be summed in one idea: treat the people with disabilities as…people. Each is an individual with a disability, not a disabled individual. And I think when we think in terms like this, we understand that we aren’t being oversensitive – we are showing love by being kind. Perhaps in a most unlikely format, the visual novel, we’ll find a way to better love others. Emi, Hanako, Lilly, Rin, Shizune, and Shiina are more than what they’ll be used for – they are a gateway to teaching us about kindness.
- Katawa Shoujo ~ Coping and Living With Our Disabilities (Ephemeral Dreams)
- Will There Be STAAR Accomodations for Students with Dyslexia? (STAARwrite)