Sticks & Stones May Break Your Bones, But WORDS Matter Too
There’s no doubt about it, some people think before speaking; their mind-to-mouth edit filter is in full functioning order, and some who suffer terribly from “open mouth, insert foot” syndrome. When this happens, it’s usually the listener who bears the brunt of the faux pas.
Since July is Disability Pride Month, we thought now would be a great time to look at how people communicate when talking about disabilities. Most people could use a refresher course in inclusionary language.
Perhaps you have heard the old cliché: “It’s not what you say, but how you say it?” That’s not necessarily true when it comes to speaking about disabilities. Making the decision to mind your words in this arena is Inclusion 101.
Research on the topic has shown that more than 90% of communication is not the actual words spoken, but everything else you convey. Your body language…the look on your face…hand gestures. It all matters.
While the actual words you say make up less than 10% of the information you are communicating, it’s that 10% people hear and remember.
So, words matter—a lot!
You’ll never find a 100% consensus when it comes to which words, descriptions, and phrases are acceptable or which are offensive. And there is a reason!
We are talking about people with varying opinions. There simply isn’t a one-size-fits-all standard on inclusionary language. However, there are some general do’s and don’ts.
Embrace Inclusionary Language
Times have changed. Every generation has their go-to words and euphemisms. When certain words are trending, they may be more accepted than when the time has passed. This is especially true when it comes to language surrounding inclusion.
For example, “handicapped” was a perfectly acceptable term when parking laws were put into place to make sure parking spaces were reserved for those with disabilities.
Today, people with disabilities, nor their allies, would say “handicapped.” It’s very easy to put a modern and appropriate positive spin on this by talking about accessibility instead of disability. For example, saying bathrooms and buildings are accessible for all.
It’s about the person, not the disability. Instead of referring to someone as a “blind woman” or a “deaf man,” focus on the individual when speaking. It is more appropriate to say: “woman who is blind” or “man who is deaf.” This is known as “person first” language as opposed to “identity first” language.
Another way to view this point is this: if you are referring to a person who has been diagnosed with diabetes, would you refer to them as “the diabetic” or “a person with diabetes?” Choose the latter.
Generalities don’t work well, regardless of who you are speaking about. This is especially true when it comes to euphemisms. You may be meaning well, but it might not come across as such. To be safe, avoid terms such as “differently-abled” and “handi-capable.”
Instead, use the specific disability. People who cannot see know they are blind. The only difference between a person who is deaf and one who isn’t is that the deaf person can’t hear. And they know it all too well.
At the end of the day, there is no reason to show discomfort around the topic of disabilities.
If there is no reason to point it out, don’t. When possible, use the person’s name instead of their disability.
Few people want to give others the power to define who they are. As such, if you avoid treating a disability as though it defines a person, you will always be on the side of saying the right thing.
This also refers to another trap some fall into when interacting with people with disabilities; they do not want to be treated as victims nor heroes.
The key word in the phrase, “people with disabilities” is the word PEOPLE. Therefore, if you follow the Golden Rule, you’ll be in good shape. Treat other people as you want to be treated. It’s up to you to be respectful and think before you speak. And, if you speak out of turn, acknowledge it and learn from your mistake. Do the best you can. No one could ask you to do more.
Learn more about Easterseals New Jersey, our amazing programs and ways you can support our efforts to support people with all types of disabilities in the Garden State.