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The Power of Language When Talking About Disabilities

We work with a large population of people who receive our services, and the people that provide those services in a loving, caring manner. To help empower our communities, we feel it is important to speak to the power of using the correct language when talking about disabilities, and when talking to people with disabilities.

To achieve our goal of helping to improve communication on all sides, here are some helpful tips and notes to remember when communicating with those who have disabilities:

  • Put The Person First: The American Psychological Association, or APA, urges people to simply “put the person first.” This means referring to your friend as a “man with a disability” instead of a “disabled person,” or as a woman with a learning disability instead of learning-disabled. Instead of wheelchair-bound, try saying teenager who uses a wheelchair. Feel the difference? You don’t want to focus on the condition more than the person who is affected with it.
  • Avoid the Negative: The APA also urges people to avoid troublesome language that refers to disability in a negative manner. For example, you can avoid using a phrase like “stroke victim,” as it suggests that a person succumbed to their condition. And don’t limit somebody with the backward compliment of saying how good she is at something…despite her disability.
  • But Don’t Go Overboard Either: Everyone can recognize someone who is being disingenuous or offering phrases with false sincerity. Saying something like, “You are so brave to keep trying. You are my hero.” can actually marginalize the individual, or unintentionally glorify what in fact is a serious medical condition. The overuse of either positive or negative labels usually ends up focusing more attention on the disability, whether intentional or not.
  • Teach Your Children Well: Children can pick up very quickly on the words adults say to describe others, so be careful of the language you use around them when discussing people. Be sure to avoid labels such as lame, handicapped, deformed or crippled, as they can cause emotional damage when repeated inappropriately.
  • A Disability Is Not the Same as An Illness: Although some people with disabilities may also have chronic diseases, the disability itself it not an illness. Don’t imply that the disability is related to some type of anatomical or physiological defect. And try not to unnecessarily limit the person by describing him or her as a patient, unless of course you are actually talking to a doctor about medical care.

Perhaps most importantly of all, it is crucial to remember that, regardless of these or any other tips you read, at the end of the day, the people that have the final say on language used in reference to disabilities are the people who have them. These suggestions are just to be used as a standard guideline or a starting point for your communications. Every person is going to have a different opinion or preference, and it is up to you to find out what that preference is.

If you are interested in learning more or becoming one of the caring RISE professionals who help people achieve their best life, visit our online career center or stop by one of our offices in Utah, Arizona, Oregon or Idaho to learn how you can make a very positive impact on someone’s life.