Cancer survivor, abuse survivor, murder victim, and amputee victim. Now imagine these phrases: Cancer victim, abuse victim, murder survivor, amputee survivor. The latter set of phrases may yield feelings of uneasiness and even confusion. There are certain life experiences, that after they are done, we deem more appropriate to be paired with the word survivor, and likewise other experiences that are typically more appropriate to be paired with the word victim. Cancer is something that someone goes through, and if they do not die from it, they cease to go through it and are called cancer survivors. A woman who perhaps endured years of abuse at the hands of her abusive partner is similarly deemed to have survived that experience of abuse. A person who has been murdered is inarguably a victim because there is no recovering to be done. A person whose body part has been cut off is considered a victim of that experience because it is presumed that their life will never function on the level that it previously did, making them a victim of their experience their whole life.
Now, consider the term “hurricane victims” verses “hurricane survivors.” In the context of Hurricane Maria, as of January of 2019, both the use of victim and survivor applies, depending on the situation. There are people who are better off since Maria, and there are people who are still very much suffering after the hurricane. To use the term survivor is to imply that the negative effects of the Hurricane have ceased. For people that are very much suffering today, it is important to question the use of the term survivor to describe these individuals.
I have been thinking about these terms in my second experience as a student attorney in the University at Buffalo School of Law Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic. Words and phrases need to be carefully chosen post-disaster.