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People with Disabilities: Using the Right Words
Words matter, and for people with disabilities, using the right
terminology is crucial in order to be accurate and respectful. A
Way with Words, a document
from Employment and Social Development Canada, states that attitudes can be the
foremost barrier facing people with disabilities and that, because words are a
reflection of those, it is fundamental to present positive information when
talking to and about people with disabilities.
It is essential to put the person first and the disability second because, above all, people with disabilities are people. Their disability is just a part of who they are, but it doesn't define them. For example, it’s not an autistic child but rather a child with autism.
Colleen Bernard, professor in the Special Care Counselling program at Vanier College in Montreal, goes further than that. She says that it’s even better to use the person’s name rather than calling them by their disability. She says that the disability helps you understand the person’s situation, yet it doesn’t help you to know that person. It is important to consider any individual as a unique entity.
Bernard mentions that for parents of children with disabilities, it’s often when they begin taking their children outside of the home that they start hearing about what their children can’t do. Bernard suggests a more inclusive approach. She says that it’s about learning about possibility instead, about moving up from the situation. That is why it can be extremely demeaning to people with disabilities to be called with words that suggest hopelessness, sickness, doom or words that single them out as odd or different.
One efficient way to affect change in society is to start by having these conversations in schools. For staff, Bernard suggests having a meeting at the beginning of the school year in order to keep each other accountable. ‘‘It comes down to the expectation of the role model in the room,’’ she says. ‘‘As a teacher, I have a huge responsibility to show respect.’’ Being language-sensitive within the school is a forward-thinking move and it helps everyone involved to react with confidence.
Besides school workers, news professionals are also huge influencers on the correct terminology to use, but it goes further than that. Coverage of people with disabilities can easily fall to one extreme or another, such as portraying people with disabilities as afflicted or as heroes who overcame great odds. ‘‘Most people with disabilities are like most people in society,’’ says Bernard. ‘‘Most are in the average and we need to see more of the average person that is getting by,’’ she says. ‘‘We all have our challenges in life and we need to see the average, and also the diffferent challenges that those people face.’’
Bernard acts as an example. Her motto is Gandhi’s famous sentence, ‘‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’’ Her positive influence is the proof that leading by example and being inclusive is the way to show respect for everyone, whether they live with a disability or not.
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