Be honest: When you look at a person with disabilities, what do you see first — the person or the disabilities?
Too many of us would have to answer the latter. But there are ways to subtly alter attitudes so that the nondisabled see people first, and disabilities secondarily.
Why would you bother, you ask? A couple of reasons. It’s the right thing to do, and it may help protect you against legal trouble with disability discrimination.
Changing the vocabulary
One key tool for shifting the way people think is to shift the way they talk. Here are some suggested guidelines you could give employees for talking about co-workers with disabilities:
- In the first place, don’t refer to the disability unless it’s relevant to the conversation.
- Don’t say “disabled people,” “handicapped people” or, worse, “crippled people.” Instead say “people with disabilities” or “employees with disabilities.” This phrasing puts the people first.
- Avoid certain adjectives when describing people with disabilities. These would include invalid, deaf and dumb, mute, crippled, defective and handicapped. Terms like those are outdated and loaded with judgment.
- Don’t use otherwise acceptable adjectives — blind, epileptic, diabetic — as nouns for groups of people. Don’t say, for instance, “the blind” when talking about people with visual impairments.
- Avoid certain verb phrases when describing people’s relationship to their disabilities. These would include “suffering from,” “afflicted by,” and “stricken with.” Simply say the person “has” a disability. He or she doesn’t want pity, just a chance to succeed.
- Don’t use “normal” or “able-bodied” to describe people who do not have disabilities. Say “people without disabilities,” if necessary to make comparisons.
Sure, you’re probably going to get some backlash from employees who think this kind of talk is all about being “PC.” It’s not. Language is powerful, and when you use words that value and respect people, attitudes change too.
photo credit: attercop311
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