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Language Matters for a Community to be Disability Friendly

by Christie Gilson

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.

  • Think before you speak, but don't refrain from speaking to us. Remember that you won't have been the first person to say something you might perceive as awkward. As a person who is blind, Christie Gilson spends much of the first meeting she has with a new acquaintance comforting them in their nervousness around her. If you use the word "see" when talking with her, it won't shock or even upset her.
  • Refrain from treating us as helpless or childlike. If you talk down to someone in a wheelchair as if we were children, we may have to explain that we are taxpaying adults, just like you are. People with disabilities have had to learn many more interpersonal skills throughout their lives than have people without disabilities. We often comfort those who first meet us; we learn to smile when people say things that are demeaning to us.
  • If you would like to offer us assistance with some task, ask before helping. Then, listen to how we want help and provide that kind of help. When using a guide dog, some well-intentioned people grab Christie's dog's harness and drag the dog and her across a street. This ruins the dog's training and interrupts the vital communication channel between the dog and its owner.
  • Remember that our experiences as we grew up heavily influence our thinking as adults, unless we've been taught otherwise. Isn't it interesting that so many earlier terms created to describe disability have become pejorative over time? The words "deaf and dumb," "retardation," "idiot" and "moron" once described specific medical conditions. Our society has turned those words into patronizing insults. When Nelvin Vos experienced an injury as a child, he was a patient for months at a hospital for "crippled children," which later dropped the word "crippled" from its name.

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.