“Words are like eggs dropped from great heights; you can no more call them back than ignore the mess they leave when they fall,” writes Jodi Picoult, which in essence is the same as the phrases we’ve heard our whole lives about how powerful the words we choose to use are and the consequences of using those words.
Words can be empowering. They can inspire and motivate us to change the world if strung together in a particularly moving way, as in Oprah’s 2018 Golden Globes speech empowering women, and similarly, Emma Gonzalez’s impassioned speech to end gun violence in the US. Words can go in through your one ear and out through the other, or it can rally a nation and demand change.
But as Jodi Picoult explains, when your words are harsh, cruel, or careless, you can’t take them back, just as you can’t take back the potential harm they might cause. So it’s particularly important to think about the things we say when we communicate with others and about others, and especially when those others are different to us.
In the following video by Hiho, they show us how Charity, a little person, would like to be talked to when she sits down with a few children.
Charity explains that she’s a person with a disability to the kids and explains exactly what her disability is. Throughout the video, one little boy is afraid he’ll be insensitive, saying, “I don’t want to be rude”. But with these guidelines, perhaps we, and our kids, can make an assertive effort to use inclusive language and preferred words and phrases.
1. Use person-first language
Charity didn’t refer to herself as a “disabled person”, but rather a “person with a disability”. This is important because people with disabilities are first and foremost people, just like you and me. if you use disabled as an adjective you are suggesting that their disability is the first thing you see and it defines who they are. Avoid referring to the disability in this way and always put their personhood first.
2. Avoid using collective nouns
Referring to “the disabled” implies that all people with disabilities are the same and have the same issues. This separates people with disabilities from society. So again rather using “people with disabilities”, even if you’re referring to multiple people.
3. Avoid negative words
While someone might be living with a particular condition, they don’t need to be reminded that they are “suffering from” or are “afflicted by” it. Remove any emotion from the sentence that could imply they are weak or a victim to be pitied.
4. Avoid being patronising
When someone is ill or has a particular disability, there are certain things we naturally want to say. But while “How are you doing?” is okay, “You’re such an inspiration”, “You’re so brave” and “It’s good to see you out – good for you” is not.
Again, just because someone is living with a particular condition, does not make them weak or incompetent. So if you see them living their life, just like anyone else, don’t praise them for doing everyday things. It’s patronising and, as Tiffiny Carlson, a person with a disability, writes, “Your comment will have the negative effect, reminding us how different people still think we are.”
5. Avoid euphemisms
You might think that referring to someone as “differently abled”, “people of all abilities” and the “disAbled” is a good idea. Well, it’s not. You’re once again separating people with disabilities from everyone else and trying to make them seem like an inspiration you just can’t help but praise. Always focus on the person first, and not their disability.
- Also read: Think disability is a tragedy? We pity you
6. Words and phrases for people with disabilities
Use the following words and terms when addressing people with particular disabilities:
Source: Equality North East
And if you're still unsure of how to address someone, just ask.
- Also read: This 8-year-old underwent specialist training to care for her best friend with a disability
7. The way you talk matters too
Tiffiny also gives a few points suggesting that the way you talk to others is equally important. Firstly, address someone with a disability, not the person they are with; before doing so, introduce yourself as you would when having a conversation with any other person; and don’t speak slower and louder as if you’re more likely to be heard or understood by the person with a disability.
Just because someone might have a clear disability, does not mean their learning has been affected too. It’s offensive to think someone is incompetent just because they’re a little different to you. They’re not stupid, but maybe you are.
If you find that offensive, imagine how someone else might feel if you treat them as though they aren’t able to carry out simple tasks or you simply do not recognise them as a part of the same society as you. We need to be mindful of the way to talk to and about each other and the words we use when we do in order to be more inclusive of one another and ensure our words inspire and motivate, rather than leave those around us feeling isolated and alone.
Are you a person with a disability or know someone with a disability? What are some of the common insensitive words and phrases you sometimes hear from others? Tell us by emailing email@example.com and we may publish your comments.
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