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December 2, 2010
Originally published in The Morning Call
The language we use to interact with others matters because it reflects our inner ways of thinking about one another. As the nation Friday observes International Day of Persons with Disabilities, a re-examination of the language we use and the perspectives we have about persons with disabilities is especially relevant, particularly if we wish to make our community a model for disability friendliness, which we think of as more inclusive, accessible and welcoming.
At some point in our lifetimes, one out of five Americans will have some sort of disability. Furthermore, as we age, our activities of daily living are impacted by a disability. Even if we don't experience disability ourselves, we will encounter family members who have disabilities. The following observations are offered from our perspectives as persons with disabilities to help us interact sensitively and respectfully with one another.
One of the participants in a major survey of the unmet needs of persons in the Lehigh Valley with disabilities, conducted as the first step in creating the Partnership for a Disability Friendly Community reported: "People refer to you as 'sweetie' or 'honey'; if I have an aide with me or someone with me, they speak to that person, referring to me, instead of speaking directly to me."
People who baby persons with disabilities or express pity are losing out from the unfettered interaction we could have, if they could just see us as persons. Sure, our disabilities impact many things we do. Sure, we might talk, walk, read or think differently than you do. But the most important thing to remember is that we're just as human as you are.
Our disabilities have not made us any more virtuous or talented. We lead full lives of happiness and disappointment, just like people without disabilities. We are persons, no more and no less. So when you meet a person with a disability, try and meet the whole person and not focus on the disability.
When you spend time with people with disabilities, you get to know us as people. And the language used will help us to understand each other even more deeply.
Christie Gilson, an assistant professor of education at Moravian College, is a member of the Lehigh Valley Partnership for a Disability Friendly Community; Nelvin Vos, former vice president and dean of Muhlenberg College, is convener of the partnership.