The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. – Mark Twain
I am a little obsessed with diction, also known as word choice. It tickles me when I’m able to find a perfect word to describe a situation or feeling. My interest in word choice and finding the right one is the closest thing to creating magic I have (until my acceptance letter from Hogwarts finally arrives). Other people are so concerned by the prospect of picking the wrong word, they’d rather say nothing at all. I wanted to give you all a few things to keep in mind about language and the ADA. Don’t worry, I won’t be grading your responses, but I do hope this can inspire some discussion.
1. Non-Inclusive Language
Inclusive language is free from words, phrases, or attitudes that reflect prejudiced, stereotyped, or discriminatory views of particular people or groups. It is also language that doesn’t deliberately or inadvertently exclude people from being seen as part of a group. Even when a remark or action based on a stereotype is not based on a conscious prejudice, it can still be hurtful and cause harm or damage to the person. The ADA does not require people to be kind or use certain language. I want to believe that everyone would like their words to be kind, and they do not intend to exclude or hurt others. These words can make people with disabilities feel like they don’t belong or are less than important. It is possible you have fallen into a habit of using words which are less inclusive. It is incredibly common, and even I slip up sometimes. Here are some words that are better left unsaid, and some alternatives.
Do not refer to someone as a "victim" of a condition (burn victim, stroke victim, wheel-chair bound, confined to a wheelchair, crippled, afflicted with, suffers from, etc.). Terms like differently-abled, challenged, handi-capable or special are often considered condescending.
For a time, handicapped was the preferred vernacular. It was a clinical, neutral word, and often used in legislation about disability rights. Instead, use the word accessible (such as accessible parking, accessible toilet, etc.).
The word lame was originally used in reference to people or animals with reduced mobility (such as a horse going lame, or being unable to walk. Now it is a throw away word synonymous for “uncool," and is not the best word to use.
These terms are not appropriate because they can perpetuate negative stereotypes and false ideas about people with disabilities. When choosing your words, emphasize abilities, not limitations. For this reason, the phrases ‘hearing impaired’, ‘visually impaired’, ‘blindness’ and ‘deafness’ are not preferred. Instead, a person is deaf or hard of hearing, or blind or low vision.
2. Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say
Euphemisms are neutral, vague, mild, or indirect ways to replace a direct, harsh, unpleasant or insulting term or taboo. We regularly use euphemisms to describe sex, death, bodily functions, and disability. Using euphemisms can be harmful by making honest discussions of disability taboo. It can also underplay the significance and impact of disability with imprecise language. For example, people with psychiatric conditions have been referred to as lunatic, maniac, psycho, insane, and crazy.
Rather than misusing a term which stigmatizes mental health conditions, try and be more precise with your language. Instead of crazy, did you mean irrational, rude, cruel, toxic, criminal, absurd, nonsensical, ludicrous?
Words evolve over time, including words changing from neutral to offensive. It is better to accept that language changes, and update our vocabulary, rather than hold on to harmful words. It is very possible the words we use today will fall out of acceptance, and we will adjust our language accordingly.
3. Connotation vs. Denotation
Denotation is the literal, dictionary definition of a word. Connotation is the symbolism, emotions, or ideas a word evokes beyond its dictionary definition. It is in poor taste to argue that because a word has a literal definition, you can ignore the cultural and emotional impact a word gains over time. This is often used to excuse the use of the word “retarded”. The word was originally a clinical, neutral definition to describe developmental delays or cognitive disabilities. However, over time, the word has been used to insult, belittle, oppress people with disabilities. Therefore, even if you want to use the word literally (to slow or delay progress), choose another word to get your point across.
4. Pity vs. Pride
People with disabilities are like everyone else. They appreciate if you care about their feelings, but rarely do they desire your pity. Sympathy is feeling pity or sorrow for someone’s misfortune. Instead, practice empathy, or the ability to comprehend or share the feelings of others. Try to “walk a mile in their shoes” to understand their perspective, rather than feel sorry for people disabilities. For many people, what is defined as a disability is a positive part of their identity. For other people, it is neutral. The language we use can make people feel shame, whereas people may feel a sense of pride for their identity (such as with Deaf culture). Disability is a natural part of human life, so we do not want our language about disability to reflect shame or indignity.
5. Nothing About Us Without Us
The most important thing to remember, when choosing the right word, is to recognize your audience. We can give you suggestions, but the best choice is to simply ask. People with disabilities are the experts on what it is like living with a disability. An individual is an expert on how disability effects their day-to-day lives. Remember, disability is a natural part of human existence. People live with a disability, they have to overcome attitudinal, social, architectural, educational, transportation and employment barriers.
And finally, no one expects perfection – except us recovering perfectionists. The goal is to be mindful of the meaning of the words we use. If you have a willingness to learn and adjust where necessary, you’re golden. With a little help, we can all support each other to do better.