There was some back and forth in the Toronto Star last week about outdated language in reference to people with disabilities. A column by Kathy English noted that former Ontario MPP Gary Malkowski, a long-time advocate for those who are deaf, took offence at a Star headline that used the phrase, “falls on deaf ears.” A subsequent letter to the editor noted that the writer, as a person who is blind, thought these phrases were also outdated and offensive: blind rage, blind drunk, robbed us blind, blind faith.
It’s true that many of us often don’t even notice the words and how they might be taken. Often people use terms that imply helplessness or evoke pity, such as “stricken with deafness” or “suffers from blindness.” I confess to having included in a newsletter article a line referring to someone as being “hearing impaired.” I was gently informed that the word “impaired” in American Sign Language implies intoxication; better to say “deaf” or “hard of hearing.”
While searching for guidelines, I can across numerous versions of these inclusive language tips (although I had a hard time finding a Canadian source!):
- Put the person first, not the disability. For example, “students with a disability,” not “disabled students.”
- When necessary, refer to the person’s specific disability. For example, “A person with cerebral palsy.”
- Don’t use phrases like “suffers from,” stricken with” or “victim of;” people with disabilities aren’t necessarily suffering, nor do they wish to be seen as victims.
- Don’t sweep everyone into categories, such as “the blind” or “the disabled.” People may have similar disabilities but they are all unique.
- Don’t use expressions that imply restriction, such as “wheelchair-bound” or “confined to a wheelchair.” A wheelchair is an aid to mobility, not an anchor! Why not say “uses a wheelchair,” if it’s really relevant at all?
In general, if the words we use to describe someone with a disability are negative, they reflect and reinforce negative attitudes. Don’t do it.
Excellent tips, Sue. I first became aware of some of this language years ago when writing material for the Ontario government. Before then, I’m sure I wasn’t aware of the negative connotation of “disabled students” or “wheelchair-bound.”
This is a very important topic for a “sensitive and clear communicator” to address, Sue.
When I asked my long-time friend and first mentor, Christine Karcza, what is the best way to handle this, Christine stated the same thing: place the emphasis on the person first, “a person with a disability.” She is not fond of PC euphemisms like “physically challenged.” One of Christine’s many fascinating appointments and adventures is being on the Royal Ontario Museum’s board of trustees, where she is spearheading an initiative to ensure the ROM goes beyond the mandated building code and help make the museum world class “in terms of providing inclusive visitor experiences for people with disabilities.” (That is a direct quote from her website.) The board of trustees is a very high-powered group of some of Canada’s biggest movers and shakers. One of the things Christine likes the best about her board appointment is that her advice is sought out and listened to and that she is making a difference in changing perceptions. (I imagine they all admire and adore her as well; she has an inspiration effect on everyone she meets.)
On a side note, when a Radio-Canada journalist asked me to connect her with one of our members for an interview, he responded, “I would not contact Radio-Canada by phone as I have a severe hearing disability.”
Over the years I have seen terminology change frequently for people with various conditions. In the ’80s they were “the handicapped.” Then they were “the disabled.” Then they were called “people with disabilities.” Lately I’ve heard of the term “differently abled.” Give me a break. It seems to me it’s impossible to keep up. Most people– I certainly — mean no harm when they refer to “people who may have some condition that makes certain activities occasionally challenging” but we do need some brief and elegant language to describe them, that doesn’t keep changing every six months.
Thanks for the comments, everyone! Perhaps we can hope that with growing awareness, language will become more inclusive in all respects (firefighter vs. fireman, anyone?) and in many cases, these specific differentiations won’t be seen as necessary at all.