For far too long the fear and concern over using the wrong language has prevented conversations about disability from even taking place. People find it often easier to ignore, or avoid, talking about disability than acknowledge, or admit, that they're not quite sure of the right way to talk about disability. It is, however, so important to talk confidently about disability to encourage inclusivity.
Language is continually evolving
Language, by its very nature, is continually changing and evolving. The words and phrases that people use now will be different to the ones we used in the previous 10, 20 or 30 years. Language associated with minority groups tends to change at an accelerated rate as, over time, people from these groups have started to feel more empowered to speak out as a community and let the rest of the population know that actually, 'I find that offensive' and 'I'm not happy being referred to in that way.'
How language changes around the world – cultural awareness
We recently took part in an insightful training session from Purple about the use of inclusive language. During the session one of the points discussed, was that the language surrounding disability tends to change depending on where you live in the world. Whereas someone from the UK would perhaps use identity-first language and refer to a “disabled person”, in the United Arab Emirates that same person would be “a person of determination”. Language can also be influenced by how you define disability: the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities defines disability based on the duration of the impairment and uses the term “persons with disabilities” whereas the WHO includes anyone experiencing disability, independent of the duration and refers to “people with disability”. The WHO proposes that the term ‘disabilities” could be associated to specific health conditions.
These are examples of why it's important to maintain cultural awareness when engaging in a conversation about disabilities as what's acceptable in one culture, or group, may not be in another.
Person first – the social model of disability
The social model of disability is is a way of viewing the world that recognises what makes someone disabled is not their impairment or condition, but the social attitudes, physical and environmental barriers that have been placed in their way. It was developed by people with disability as a direct challenge to the prevailing medical model of disability that proposes that people are disabled by their impairments or differences. The medical model views disability as a medical problem that can be prevented, cured or managed.
The social model helps to make it clear that the oppression, exclusion and discrimination that people with disability face is not an inevitable consequence of having an impairment, but is caused instead by the way society is run and organised.
Language reflects the cultural assumptions and thinking of society around us. It follows then, that for much of history, the language and words used to describe disability have reflected the prevailing model of disability of the time.
At Hidden Disabilities Sunflower, we recognise that the language used for disability is constantly evolving and we use person centred language. After all, we are all people first and not defined by a disability, condition or diagnosis. So put the person first and foremost and the diagnosis, condition or disability second.
There are some words that can be hurtful or harsh because they suggest helplessness, are pitying or are often used abusively.
Persons with disability
Person with dyslexia
The use of people-first language is not a hard and fast rule however, there are exceptions. Many autistic people see their autism as a fundamental part of who they are and the use of positive, identity first language is preferred. So in this instance, do say 'autistic person', rather than using the term 'person with autism'.
I'm not a survivor or victim
People with disabilities have historically been portrayed as vulnerable. As if just getting through the day must be a struggle, an achievement in itself, something to be recognised. This is in the most part, not an appropriate way to regard someone.
People with disabilities do not “suffer from” their condition, disability or diagnosis. They don't want to be celebrated for simply existing or just doing what their non-disabled peers are doing. They are not survivors or victims to impart misplaced sympathy on.
Just ask me
One way to avoid causing any offence is to simply ask someone how they would like you to refer to their condition, diagnosis or disability. Treat them as the individual that they are. This way you aren't making any assumptions about that person and how they'd like to be spoken to. You're responding to their individual needs with sensitivity and respect, while opening up communication on the subject of disability. This helps to embed and promote equality and inclusion in the work place, within your social circles and society at large.