Monday, April 20, 2015

Schooled on Language

I was rooting around in one of the local coffee shops, scouting out a future business report when I stumbled into a conversation with a gentleman who has a service dog.

He kindly, and gently, gave me a tutorial on what is currently considered the most "proper" way to discuss people who have disabilities.  He was not harsh.  His general demeanor was "I can see that you are a gentleman.  Gentlemen make efforts to treat others with dignity and honor.  This is for your information.

Its about the person

Fashions come and go.  It used to be perfectly proper to call African-Americans "Nigger", an easier-to-enunciate derivative of "Negro".  Negro means "black" in Latin.  Then the preferred term became "Colored Person".  Then "Black" or "African-American".  So I can understand that some people will roll their eyes and decide it is simply not worth the mental effort to keep up with the current fashion.  Why learn "rules" when they seem to change on a random basis?

For those of you who are gentlemen, and ladies, there is a good tutorial at the American Psychological Association Writing Guidelines webpage.

First, and foremost, people with a disability are people.  

Quoting from the style guide:

The guiding principle for nonhandicapping language is to maintain the integrity of individuals as whole human beings by avoiding language that
  • implies that a person as a whole is disabled (e.g., disabled person)
  • equates a person with his or her condition (e.g., epileptic)
  • has superfluous, negative overtones (e.g., stroke victim)
  • is regarded as a slur (e.g., cripple).
For decades, persons with disabilities have been identified by their disability first, and as persons, second. Often, persons with disabilities are viewed as being afflicted with, or being victims of, a disability. In focusing on the disability, an individual's strengths, abilities, skills, and resources are often ignored. In many instances, persons with disabilities are viewed neither as having the capacity or right to express their goals and preferences nor as being resourceful and contributing members of society. Many words and phrases commonly used when discussing persons with disabilities reflect these biases.

Some specific "guidelines":

  • Put people first, not their disability.
    • "a person who has a disability" is preferred over "disabled person."
  • Do not label people by their disability.
    • "a child who shows difficulty concentrating" is preferred over "hyperactive kid"
  • Do not label persons with disabilities as patients or invalids.
    •  Only professional care givers can legitimately identify a person as a patient, and then only people they are personally providing care to.
  • Do not overextend the severity of a disability.
    • Specifically identifying a learning disability is preferable to a global "special kid".  The focus is on empowering people and broad-brush descriptions do not provide enough information to help others accommodate and empower that person.
  •  Use emotionally neutral expressions.
    • "A person who had a stroke" is preferred over "stroke victim".
  • Emphasize abilities, not limitations.
    •  "Uses a wheelchair" is preferred over "confined to a wheelchair"
  • Avoid offensive expression.
    • Many older terms have a negative nuance:  Crippled, crazy, retarded and so on. 
  • Seeing people with disabilities as a resource and as contributing community members, not as a burden or problem.
    •  "Family support needs" or "Accommodations" is preferred over "Family burden".

Sometimes the handicap is the environment

It is recommended that the word disability be used to refer to an attribute of a person, and handicap to refer to the source of limitations....when the limitation is environmental, as in the case of attitudinal, legal, and architectural barriers, the disability is not handicapping—the environmental factor is. This distinction is important because the environment is frequently overlooked as a major source of limitation, even when it is far more limiting than the disability. Thus, prejudice handicaps people by denying access to opportunities; inaccessible buildings surrounded by steps and curbs handicap people who require the use of a ramp.


It may seem like a lot of effort over the order of the wording.  But I figure that I will make the effort while giveing myself permission to fail.  Fortunately, it is not necessary to be perfect to be a gentleman.

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