When talking about disabilities, put people first

by on July 7, 2010 · 8 Comments POSTED IN: HR Cafe
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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.

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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 Terms like those are outdated and loaded with judgment.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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8 Comments on This Post

  1. Joe
    July 7, 2010 - 1:46 pm

    I once had to manage an employee who had a spinal cord injury a few years prior to working with me. The toughest part was when I had to mention him to my colleagues when he wasn't around; instinct told me to refer to him as “wheelchair guy”, or something like that, but I knew it was insensitive and could probably lead to trouble if he ever heard me say it. Eventually we all got used to calling him by his name and his ailment was secondary, but there was a definite awkward period right after he started working.

  2. Joe
    July 7, 2010 - 1:46 pm

    I once had to manage an employee who had a spinal cord injury a few years prior to working with me. The toughest part was when I had to mention him to my colleagues when he wasn't around; instinct told me to refer to him as “wheelchair guy”, or something like that, but I knew it was insensitive and could probably lead to trouble if he ever heard me say it. Eventually we all got used to calling him by his name and his ailment was secondary, but there was a definite awkward period right after he started working.

  3. July 8, 2010 - 5:42 pm

    I do have a problem with political correctness but I don't have any problem with learning to pay respect to people we should be thoughtful about. I do note in a couple of my comments at another blog earlier today, I did use the phrasing “disabled people” and that I agree is not “putting people first”.

    This respectful notion of “putting people first” I can see means encapsulating respect in our own words and anytime we learn to respond with more thoughtfulness means that the idea of “putting people first” is far more important than the idea of “political correctness”, because we are seeing people as people and not our approach as “politics”.

    Politicians are paid to engage in politics and the irony of that payment is that it comes from tax paid dollars, so political language has it's place in this world, but as citizens addressing citizens, we can learn this approach to facilitate our own personal intelligence, as well as creating a stronger environment in the workplace which contributes to the bottom line as much as it does to respect.

    I was reading today the thoughts of Jane Campbell (who I linked to a prior comment) and she wrote a think piece of importance of words in terms of action and gaining results for people with disability.

    Jane Campbell “Stick and Stones”
    http://www.livingwithdignity.info/policy/assets

    That think piece reinforced to me the consequences of using politically correct language rather than “putting people first”. When words need meaning, it effects the regulatory consequence and the way I look at the principle of “putting people first”, it is not simply about improving an employers legal protection, but words that don't play politics with people's lives, but demonstrate respect of purpose.

    The above guidelines make a lot of sense as long as the context is about respect and not politics. I have many ingrained habits that will take a period of active practice to change, and the above mentioned guidelines do serve me a criterion to make my words more respect appropriate, which simply means that I am learning, which is exactly what I came here to do.

    The last line “when you use words that value and respect people, attitudes change too” isn't something I need to buy into, it is something I must practice, and practice this I will, it makes complete sense and is personally very humbling because it requires intelligent respectful application.

    [Em]

  4. July 8, 2010 - 5:42 pm

    I do have a problem with political correctness but I don't have any problem with learning to pay respect to people we should be thoughtful about. I do note in a couple of my comments at another blog earlier today, I did use the phrasing “disabled people” and that I agree is not “putting people first”.

    This respectful notion of “putting people first” I can see means encapsulating respect in our own words and anytime we learn to respond with more thoughtfulness means that the idea of “putting people first” is far more important than the idea of “political correctness”, because we are seeing people as people and not our approach as “politics”.

    Politicians are paid to engage in politics and the irony of that payment is that it comes from tax paid dollars, so political language has it's place in this world, but as citizens addressing citizens, we can learn this approach to facilitate our own personal intelligence, as well as creating a stronger environment in the workplace which contributes to the bottom line as much as it does to respect.

    I was reading today the thoughts of Jane Campbell (who I linked to a prior comment) and she wrote a think piece of importance of words in terms of action and gaining results for people with disability.

    Jane Campbell “Stick and Stones”
    http://www.livingwithdignity.info/policy/assets

    That think piece reinforced to me the consequences of using politically correct language rather than “putting people first”. When words need meaning, it effects the regulatory consequence and the way I look at the principle of “putting people first”, it is not simply about improving an employers legal protection, but words that don't play politics with people's lives, but demonstrate respect of purpose.

    The above guidelines make a lot of sense as long as the context is about respect and not politics. I have many ingrained habits that will take a period of active practice to change, and the above mentioned guidelines do serve me a criterion to make my words more respect appropriate, which simply means that I am learning, which is exactly what I came here to do.

    The last line “when you use words that value and respect people, attitudes change too” isn't something I need to buy into, it is something I must practice, and practice this I will, it makes complete sense and is personally very humbling because it requires intelligent respectful application.

    [Em]

  5. July 11, 2010 - 3:31 pm

    I wanted to qualify my own observations above by adding that a sense of humor sits at the heart and in harmony with “respectful application”, and La-Di-Dah by Jake Thackray http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZaSKICzeTaE very much exemplifies this, as well as people with disability bust through cultural stereotypes http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/6924336.stm which is very good to see.

    [v.o.M.]

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