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As the world starts evolving, our choice of words becomes more and more important in our everyday conversations. The term ‘handicapped’ may sound a little offensive and debilitating to some people and hence, the term ‘person with disability’ should be used instead.
Why does it even matter?
Language has changed since we started recognising the power of how our words can shape our reality. Whether or not we are aware of it, words convey images that do have an effect on our attitude and behaviour. For example, a word like mentally crazy carries an image that can makes us feel afraid of people with mental illnesses.
As such, we need to start avoiding phrases such as ‘victim of cerebral palsy’, ‘suffering from epilepsy’, ‘afflicted with autism’ and ‘confined in a wheelchair’. These phrases imply the person is a tragic martyr; that the person was killed by the disability. In addition, we should also avoid phrases such as ‘bravely battling multiple sclerosis’ as it makes the person sound heroic for having a disability. By using all the phrases, you are objectifying the person with the disability and placing the disability first, rather than the person first.
When describing a person with a disability, it is important to position your words in such a manner that you are putting the person first instead of their disability e.g. instead of blind person, say person with visual impairment, instead of Down Syndrome child, say a child with Down syndrome.
When we change our words, we are not denying reality or hiding a certain disability but rather, we are doing it to avoid dehumanising stereotypes. People with disabilities just want to be treated and perceived in the same manner as everyone else. They are just like any of us – treat them the way you (a typical developing person) would want to be treated.
This idea of person-first language has gained large acceptance among many people with disabilities as well as many professionals who work with them. For example, some people who are hearing impaired (deaf) refer to themselves as Deaf with a capital D because they grew up and live in a community where people have no hearing. As such, deafness is their culture and their identity. Those who prefer small ‘d’ generally have been mainstreamed and live among those who hear.
One drawback of this person-first language is that people are worried that they might say the wrong thing or address the person with disability in an offensive manner. As such, people might not even try to interact with the person with disability, which ultimately defeats the purpose of changing our language to a person-first language. However, we need to remember that this current shift towards a positive language will help us understand our peers better. Always try to stay informed about what is consider appropriate and if you are ever in doubt when interacting with people with disabilities, you can simply just ask them which terms they would prefer to be addressed by.
Here are some tips on how to communicate with people with disabilities:
- When introduced to a person with disability, offer to shake hands. Those who has an artificial limb can usually shake hands.
- If you offer for assistance, wait until the offer is accepted. Then listen to or ask for instructions.
- Do not be embarrassed if you happen to use common expressions such as ‘see you later’ or ‘did you hear about that’ when in the company of people who are visually or hearing impaired.
- Ask questions. Do not be afraid to ask questions when you are unsure of what to do.
Individuals who are visually impaired:
- Speak to the individual as you approach them.
- State clearly who you are in a normal tone of voice.
- Never touch or distract their service dog without asking the owner first.
- Do not attempt to lead the person without asking them first.
- Be descriptive when giving directions. Give them information that is visually obvious to individuals who can see.
Individuals who are hard of hearing / hearing impaired:
- Gain the person’s attention before starting a conversation.
- If the individual uses a sign language interpreter, speak directly to the person and not the interpreter.
- Use short and simple sentences when communicating with them.
- Speak clearly and in a normal tone of voice. Do not shout.
Individuals with mobility impairments:
- If possible, put yourself at the person’s eye level.
- Never patronise people who uses wheelchairs by patting them on the head or shoulder.
- Do not assume the individual wants to be pushed. Always ask first.
- Offer assistance only if the individual appears to have some difficulty.
Individuals with speech impairments:
- If you do not understand what the other person is saying, do not pretend to understand what was said. Ask them to repeat what has been said and then repeat it back to them.
- Do not speak for the individual or attempt to finish the person’s sentences.
- Ask questions that only requires short and simple sentences as answers.
- Be patient. Take as much time as necessary to hear them out.
- Harrington, Tim. 1994. The Ten Commandments of Communicating with People with Disabilities. Columbus,Ohio: Irene M. Ward & Associates.
- S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy. “Communicating with and About People with Disabilities.”