Most of us in our lifetime have probably used the terms handicapped or wheelchair-bound to describe someone with a disability. We may have done this without ever thinking it could be offensive to people with disabilities.
In fact, most of us were taught that these were the proper words to use. It was just as acceptable to us as it was to generations before us who were taught that words lunatic or moron were the proper terms to use to describe people with intellectual disabilities.
The word retarded has gained popularity in today’s culture as an insult, and a far cry from its origins as a clinical term to describe a developmental disability. The national “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign began in 2009 with an effort to bring awareness to official and personal use of the “r” word.
For the last 10 years, on the first Wednesday of March, millions across the country have taken the pledge to eliminate the “r” word from their personal vocabulary, and instead use language that promotes inclusion.
People should never be defined by their disability. They are people first with strengths and weaknesses just like everyone else. For example, a person is not “wheelchair-bound,” but “uses a wheelchair.” A person is not called a “disabled person,” but a “person with a disability.”
When you use language that is inclusive and specific, you empower someone instead of allowing them to fall under one of these labels.
When you see someone using a wheelchair, do not just assume they need help or that they are not capable of doing things independently. Ask first, and they will tell you whether or not they need help.
If you are a waitress or nurse and assisting someone who has a disability, speak directly to the person not to whoever may be accompanying them. It’s also important to remember not to talk down to people and use a tone of voice that is respectful. Every person is capable in some way of communicating for themselves, whether verbally, gesturally, or by using a communication device such as a tablet.
Language is one of the most blatant ways that we show respect for one another. If you believe that all people are capable of living an independent and fulfilling life, then use language which reflects that. I urge you to take the time and think about the words you use to describe others, and how changing these words can positively impact the way we think about people who have disabilities.
If we can change how we think and what we say, we can make the community, or even the world, a better place.
Image credit: Photo by Author