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Language of Disability Awareness

  • Published: 2009-01-28 (Revised/Updated 2010-05-06) : Author: Laura Gillson
  • Synopsis: Examples of ways to address a person with a disability such as being blind or deaf.

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When I interact with the public in either my professional or personal life, I seldom consider my blindness to be a barrier to an effective conversation, but I am quickly reminded by those with whom I am speaking that it can be. Their discomfort is palpable, their curiosity obvious.

The specific nature of our conversation becomes secondary to what is really on their minds: How do I address a person who is blind? Can I ask about it? What should I say Most people seem to be asking me to put them at ease before we can proceed with a discussion. My experience has been that most people want to do the right thing, want to say the proper words, but they simply do not know what the "right thing" is. This has also proved true with other speaking professionals. I am frequently consulted on the appropriate language that should be used when presenting to diverse audiences.

For speakers who give presentations in either the corporate or community setting, below is a short tip list on the language of awareness that you can use to make your talks more sensitive, accurate and inclusive.

Put the individual before the disability.

For example, say

"people with disabilities" instead of "the disabled";

for "handicapped" or "mentally slow," say "people with disabilities," "people who are blind," and "people who are developmentally disabled."

This is respectful and empowering, as it places the emphasis on the individual, as opposed to defining that person by their disability. This practice is usually referred to as people first" language. People first language is the use of respectful and accurate terminology that is preferred by people with disabilities.

Avoid euphemisms.

It is not necessary to use phrases, such as "differently abled," "handi-capable," or "challenged." This implies that disability is not a topic that can be discussed in a straightforward manner, and it only emphasizes the differences between us.

Avoid dramatic language or language that sensationalizes disability. Using phrases, such as "afflicted with" or "suffers from," reinforces the idea that the individual is a victim.

Here are other examples of positive and affirming language versus insensitive or negative language.

Instead of "psycho" or "mentally defective," use "a person with a mental illness" or "a person who is mentally retarded."

If you know of someone who has a sensory disability, they can be referred to as "a person who is blind," "a person with low vision," or "a person who is deaf," as opposed to "the blind," "sight challenged," or someone who "suffers from hearing loss."

If you know of someone who is paralyzed or is unable to ambulate, that person is said to be mobility impaired, not "crippled" or "wheelchair bound" That individual is simply a person who uses a wheelchair.

Unless you live in Los Angeles or New York City, you may tend to identify more with small-town America rather than with metro urban sprawl or the concrete jungle of the big cities. You personally may not know many people with disabilities or any at all. Therefore, you may not have considered why it might be important to alter your vocabulary in this way.

It's true that the person standing before you may not appear to have a disability, but they may be married to, related to, or care for someone who does. If you are speaking in front of a group, there is no way to know which members of your audience fall into which category. Using the language of awareness is an act of courtesy and respect that can set a powerful example for others to follow in their everyday communication.

"People only see what they are prepared to see." Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In this article I provide some reflections on Emerson's quote and offer a number of tips you can use in your own life. The overall theme is about our individual awareness and perception of the world.

This quote, to me, is about perception and how people see the world around them. Essentially, people only see what they are ready and willing to. As such, people are sometimes prepared only to see the worst - whether it is in regards to themselves or other people. They focus on the negative, conveniently ignoring the positive.

Sometimes people may choose to ignore certain evidence as it does not suit them. This can be problematic. Not only can it mean a person continues to engage in particular behaviors (for example, a smoker who ignores the health risks, therefore does not see their behavior as a concern) but it can have wider consequences also. For instance, such attitudes can keep prejudice in place, as stereotypes are upheld and the evidence that defies them is disregarded.

Differing perceptions

As we go through our lives, we experience different things and develop particular attitudes. It is not surprising then that people will perceive the same situation differently, as a result of their life experiences. Let me give you an example, using a set of steps as the common theme.

Imagine you had spent the day at a disability awareness course. For the first time you came to realize what an obstacle steps are to a person in a wheelchair. On your way home, you climb the same set of steps as you always do, but this time you see them differently. You wonder where the ramp is, reflecting that maybe the building is inaccessible to a wheelchair user, unless they are to be carried in.

Now imagine these steps again. You've just been reading about all the things you can do to keep fit. One of these things is to use the steps rather than the lift. You get home, and see the steps. You realize they are an opportunity to help you get fit and you decide to run up them.

Here are those steps again. This time, you work at a stadium cleaning up after the crowd has been and gone. All day you are going up and down the steps, cleaning up other people's rubbish. By the time you get home you are fed up and tired. You come to the steps that take you to your house. You greet them with a groan, hardly having the energy to climb them and remembering the long day you have had.

Now for one last scenario. Last week it was raining and the steps outside your house were slippery and you fell down them. You sprained your ankle and are very shaken up. You spend a few days recovering. Today you go to leave the house and are faced with the steps. You feel anxious, remembering your pain and stress. You nervously approach the steps and take them one step at a time, being careful not to slip.

Note how the set of steps has not changed, yet how you perceive them has.


Based on the quote and my reflections, I have some tips that may be useful:

Try looking at objects, events and people from a new perspective. Such an exercise can help increase your awareness of the world around you.

Don't believe the stereotypes or all you see on the television. Open your eyes to the world around you to see what's really going on.

Question what you see and hear.

Rather than judging a person, step into their shoes and imagine you are them. Remember, they do not have your experiences; they have their own and as such will see the world differently.

Stop making assumptions.

Finally, think of this as an opportunity to think positive. If you are prepared to see the positive in all that is around you, then positive is what you will see.

Reference: Laura Gillson is a speaker, author and educator specializing in disability awareness, advocacy, accessibility and assistive technology. For corporate, community or caregiver training, visit Eloquent Insights.


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