“Is it ok if I use the word disabled or is the word handicapped better? I have a friend who prefers to use the word handicapped to describe himself”?
“I would like to talk to an employee in our workplace about their disability so we can be more helpful but I am afraid we will use the wrong words and offend her?”
“I know we are attending your conference about the AODA to learn but I feel embarrassed because now I see words such as “disabling” or “able-bodied” is not allowed. This sounds like political correctness but we don’t know what is right or wrong anymore?”
These are 3 common questions I am asked by our clients, and attendees of conferences we present at with Optimal Performance. These questions also represent the gist of comments I hear when we have closed door, safe meetings with clients. These are times the clients feel they can speak safely out of ear shot of the language “police”.
My training and education as a Physiotherapist and subsequent 25 + years of being in the business of medicine, rehabilitation, disability management and accessible universal design has taught me many things. But there are 3 lessons I would like to share in the hopes that employers and the ‘layperson” who are trying to understand the AODA and human rights feel more confident in talking about this topic. I think I can safely speak on behalf of many an employer, employee and person reading this blog that you feel uncomfortable asking about the AODA or about disabilities and may even have been embarrassed when someone tries to correct your language. My experience finds many a person of the academic community in particular have caused the “layperson” to feel they are ignorant about the topic and therefore “not qualified” to discuss the topic any further.
3 Lessons I have learned about Politically Correct language use in the area of Disabilities;
1. The careful use of language around disability with almost self righteous correction of language holds back healthy & honest dialogue about how best to integrate the disabled communities into all aspects of life. Think about it; one moment you are talking about a friend of yours who has a “handicap” and the next moment a person who works “in the field” corrects you and says that word is not correct. Embarrassing? Do you just skulk away and learning nothing more in the conversation? Does this make you afraid to talk about some of the good things and some of the not so great things about the AODA? Does it make you afraid to talk to someone who has a disability and appears to need assistance?
2. The disabled are no better or worse a person, no smarter, no kinder or braver than those of us who have all of our capabilities intact (I am going to coin a phrase “temporarily able bodied/minded/sensed” which has been told to me is “politically incorrect language” by a recent graduate of a Masters degree in disability studies.
My experience in “the field” and with many a friend and colleague with disabilities of all types state unequivocally they are NOT offended by a concerted effort on our parts to understand disability even if our language is less than perfect in its description.
To illustrate I first heard the term “temporarily able bodied) from a colleague of mine Tom Proskowski formally of the CIBC Diversity program. He invites all of us to use the term “temporarily able bodied; minded; sensed”. Most of my friends & colleagues who have a myriad of disabilities across the spectrum use this or similar language and are also incredibly forgiving of those of us who use the wrong terminology but who are sincerely trying to understand and to help.
3. Pretending the person you are speaking with, interacting with or working with does not have a disability is like ignoring the fact I have very curly hair (you would not believe how often people remark or ask about my curly hair or the fact I am left handed for example). Maybe as a long time Physiotherapist and someone who has helped family members & friends with temporary and on going disabilities I am more comfortable in asking someone with a disability if they need assistance. Having said this I suggest each of you become equally comfortable in opening up dialogue with your friends, acquaintances and co-workers. Ask if they need assistance if it appears they are not able to do something. Ask how they would like to be helped or not. 9 out of ten times you will find your friends & co-workers are open to discussing their issues and challenges and how they prefer to be assisted, when or even if they do not need assistance.
I guess the 4th point I would like to add is to my friends who come from academia including those of you who have learned the new “language and politically correctness often espoused in disability studies programs. These studies tend to emphasis the social models of disability as opposed to the medical, health, rehabilitation & functional & design approaches to disability. The thing is this from where I sit; all of us together are correct in our efforts to encourage, rehabilitate, design, operationalize the ability for all people to participate in society to the fullest of their capabilities and needs/wants. We are all using differing language all of which is right b & all of which should be tolerated fully and openly. After all are we not all trying to improve life for people with disabilities at the end of the day).
It is far more important at this time in Ontario’s history of inclusion and diversity to allow people to engage in dialogue about disability, handicaps, able-bodied & able mindedness, impairments and accessibility legislation.
This represents a great starting point to get us all talking about one of the last groups in society who have finally been invited to participate equally in all aspects of life and society.
I caution academics and those of you just out of schools with disability studies to become more esoteric in your discussions with all people in an effort to allow us all to learn and all develop ways to integrate people with disabilities into our lives, culture, work, travel, prayer and sport.
We are early on in Ontario’s transition to a more open and accessible place. As frustrating as this may be to the idealist in you, you need to be aware of how judging another’s language and choice of words or correcting the language publicly is also the fastest way to shut down the conversation and cause people to carry on being uninformed about disability or even being outright misinformed.
Next time you hear someone asking “do I refer to this colleague as being hard of hearing or do I call it deafness as I find these terms keeps changing?”
My suggestion is to not be quick to judge as few of us have the “Dictionary of Correct Disabled Terms” in their back pockets or Blackberries to refer to. Rather it is best to listen to the essence of the conversation and move it along towards the opening of doors with which to bring about positive change thanks to the AODA in Ontario.
Food for thought from Jane Sleeth #OPCaccess and #OPCergo