Be careful with your language so you avoid unintended consequences
A euphemism is a mild, indirect, or vague expression used in place of harsh, blunt or offensive one – such as: ‘I need to go to the bathroom’ may be used instead of ‘I need to go to the toilet’; and, ‘to pass away’ is often used instead of ‘to die’.
‘Special Needs’ is the latest euphemism for a person with a disability. Such euphemisms last about 10 years before they are well known enough to be used in a pejorative (negative) way – often in the form of jokes. And of course there are websites devoted to exactly that sort of ‘humour’ – find them yourself if you want, I won’t give you a link.
Here is one of the less offensive ones by Sidney Theyid:
I am very happy today.
I have just overheard my parents saying they think I have special knees.
Even such seemingly benign jokes have a corrosive effect – it is dog-whistle* abuse – even if the abuse was not intended – because it is often not be ‘just a joke’ to a person with ‘special needs’, it may be deeply humiliating.
If you are not careful, the words and phrases you use may have a very different impact to what you anticipate on the person you are talking to, or the person you are talking about.
The most common unintended offensive remarks are those that treat people as if they are objects as I will explain.
[* ‘Dog-whistle politics’ is political messaging employing coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup. The phrase is only ever used as a pejorative, because of the inherently deceptive nature of the practice and because the dog-whistle messages are frequently themselves distasteful, for example by indirectly pushing racist attitudes. It is an analogy to dog whistles, which are built in such a way that their high-frequency whistle is heard by dogs, but is inaudible to humans. Read more about: Dog-whistle politics.]
Politically Correct Speech = Humane Speech
Most people are not thankful when it is pointed out to them that they not using what has become known as ‘politically correct speech’. It is common for them to react defensively, or even aggressively.
The fear of being ‘caught out’ not taking care with the words we use has turned into an epidemic of paranoia. The upshot of this paranoia is that people who insist on ‘politically correct speech’ are often ridiculed, and the damage done by politically incorrect speech is largely ignored.
When I trained as a remedial teacher in the 1970s the name of the course I studied was ‘Slow Learner Teaching Methods’. The name for the course was chosen to get away from the concept that children who were having trouble with learning were ‘retarded’ – a term that was still in common use at the time. (And, in those days the kids in the ‘Special Class’ were the high achievers – not any more.)
In more recent times, the word ‘disability’ has come into common use. But replacing one euphemism for another has missed the point – the WAY the terms are used is far more important than the words themselves. Most people still use the terms ‘the disabled’ and ‘a disabled person’, largely unaware of the impact their choice of words has on the people being described.
The problem is that ‘the disabled’ and ‘a disabled person’ define a person by their disability. A better way of saying it would be to say ‘a person with a disability’, thus giving precedence to their humanity not their challenges.
It is not lost on many people with disabilities that the dog-whistle implication is that the person talking thinks he/she doesn’t have any disabilities themselves.
You are not alone if you have not thought about this issue in this depth before – I hope my comments will help you become more careful with your speech in the future. This is so you can remove the impersonal language from your communications and stop giving offence to the people you are talking to, or about.
The words we use determine how we think about ourselves and others
As I have explained, there is a big difference between ‘a disabled person’ and ‘a person with disabilities’. Having a disability does not make you a disabled person:
Your personal identity is separate from any physical, mental, emotional, or even moral challenges you may have.
After all, everybody has disabilities of some form or other, it is arrogant to act as if you don’t. But notice, that YOU don’t identify as YOUR disabilities do you? Neither do most other people, even if their disabilities are more obvious than yours.
Take the time now to consider a few of your own disabilities. Here are some categories to go through and a few ideas to jog your memory. By all means add things to this limited list if they apply to you.
- Intelligence (50% of the population has an IQ less than 100)
- Short term memory
- Medium term memory
- Long term memory
- Forgetting where you leave your car keys
- Reading problems (e.g. 50% of the adult population are very poor readers and never read novels)
- Maths problems (e.g. most people cannot add, subtract, multiply or divide fractions and decimals)
- Inability to cook, do housework or wash clothes
Emotional and Social Disabilities
- Unable to control your anger
- Unable to face conflict
- Care more about others than yourself
- Mood swings
- Sleep problems
- Anxiety attacks
- Cannot empathise
- Cannot manage your stress levels
- Stomach problems
- Poor eyesight
- Poor hearing
- Poor mobility
- Poor fine motor skills
- Poor gross motor skills
- Low level of fitness
- Chronic diseases of various types
- Chronic pain
Just so you don’t feel alone, make a list of all the people you deal with in a week. I bet every one has some of the disabilities on the list above.
Now rate each of these people in terms of their personal identity.
- Do you respect them?
- Do you enjoy their company?
- How do they contribute to making the world a better place?
- Do they suffer discrimination because of their disabilities?
The Blind Leading the Blind
It is time to hear from one of our clients, Alana, a young girl aged 9 who has gorgeous silver white hair which is her pride and joy (she has genetic albinism), and who is legally blind. She has just a little, extremely close range, eyesight – but not enough to read the signs on toilet doors. We have taught her to read using very large font materials from our reading program, we also use our multi-media text in large font on the computer, and we get her to read books using a computer tablet as a magnifier. Her reading and comprehension level is now way above the average for people of her age who have sight. She can also read using Braille. The main trouble she has with reading is vocabulary as she is not familiar with what things look like, even things we take for granted like a sunset, fog, a tree, a star, or a mountain.
Alana does not think she has a disability. Life is how she has experienced it – just like you, she knows no different.
I asked Alana to tell me some of the things that make her life difficult – as you will see, they are all to do with lack of care or skill by sighted people – I used those last two words on purpose to see if you were reading carefully – of course I should have said ‘people with good sight’.
- In the lift at the airport, the ground floor (floor zero) is incorrectly labelled in Braille.
- At Disability Care Australia, the rooms are incorrectly labelled in Braille.
- Most public toilets are not labelled in Braille. Even if they are, the Braille sign is often difficult to find, or difficult to reach.
- Some footpaths are dangerous because they are not regularly checked (and fixed) for weeds, bumps and lifted pavers – and low branches should be cleared away.
- Menus are hardly ever available in large print or Braille.
Alana could have added many other things to the list, but you get the idea I’m sure.
So you can relate to her situation, just think about something that you probably take for granted – toilets.
Can you imagine how terrifying it must be for a young girl to end up in the Men’s toilet?
And what about being in a lift alone and not knowing where you are being taken?
There are none so blind as those who will not see WHO someone is rather than WHAT he/she is
I have another friend who was in a serious head-on car accident. Without going into a lot of detail, both of her feet and legs were smashed, and her spine was broken in many places. She has metal plates and screws right throughout her body. Ironically, she was a very senior orthopaedic nurse before her accident.
Unbelievably she is able to walk using walking sticks and she can drive a car short distances. For her, being able to get a special car park for people with disabilities is necessary for her to be able to shop for herself and live a relatively ‘normal’ life. She tells me that people frequently abuse her for being able to park so close to the shops, and often people without disabilities use the special car parks – ‘just for 5 minutes to briefly drop into a shop’. It has taken her a few years to learn to cope with the psychological impact of the abuse that she has to suffer.
What shocked me most is what she encounters often on pedestrian crossings – both with or without traffic lights on them. Having rude comments called out to her because she is slow getting across the road is a weekly occurrence.
She also finds it difficult to cope with people who pity her. ‘Oh you poor dear!’ sounds like sympathy to the speaker, but it is demeaning to my friend because the person is not treating her as a human being with an identity beyond how well bits of her body work.
WHO has got the biggest disability – my friend, or the people who deride or pity her?
They are the disabled people! Their personal identities are clearly damaged, leading to an inability to have empathy for others and so be able to treat them as people rather than objects.
So, no matter what a person’s individual circumstances are, always try to go beyond the physical and engage the person as a person, not an object.
Videos to Give You Practice Going Beyond the Physical
Here are three short videos featuring people with various types of disabilities from the ABC TV series called ‘OPEN – What’s Your Story?’.
You will find the stories uplifting.
Do yourself a favour and watch them.
Hayden Evans: Disability Support Worker – 05/08/13 news24
He’s the best mate I have had.
Hayden dedicates much of his own life to ensuring someone else’s life is worth living. This is a day in his life. He says that most people see his role as a babysitting role – he says he is inspired to be able to help people become more independent and involved in life.
Hayden says his job doesn’t feel like work for him as it gives him so much joy.
My mechanic’s love story: ABC TV’s Open Program 16/8/13
Featuring Mick, a mechanic who is also a devoted carer for his wife Miranda who has a rare nerve disease.
Living with Parkinson’s Disease – 15/08/13 news24
Have you ever had one of those dreams where you’re trying to run, but your legs just won’t move and every part of your body is moving in slow motion? This is how Mary Olsen describes how it feels to suffer from Parkinson’s Disease. Mary was diagnosed seven years ago after her ability to do the simplest daily tasks, took hours instead of minutes. She was in fear of losing her mobility, her ability to drive and to keep her independence. Now thanks to medication Mary leads an active life, she’s President of the Merbein Country Women’s Association, volunteers at the local MS Shop and is secretary of the Mildura Parkinson’s Disease Support & Carers Group.
High Performance Learning Tutoring
We provide tutoring to help people with Special Needs overcome or compensate for their problems. Find out more here: Tutoring to Help Children with Special Needs Overcome or Compensate for Their Problems
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