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Mind your Mouth – the Language of Disability

Julie Entwistle, MBA, BHSc (OT), BSc (Health / Gerontology)

Have you ever been in that uncomfortable place of wondering what to say to someone with a disability?  That cognitive and emotional process of wanting to offer support, but not wanting to offend?  Or worrying about offending by offering support?  Or worrying about offending by not offering support?  It can be a conundrum.

I recently left a client meeting and one of the other providers was a wheelchair user.  As we ventured to the parking lot we stopped at her car.  As we were finishing our conversation she proceeded to engage in the process of transferring into her vehicle.  Not wanting to provide help without her request or permission, and not really knowing if she needed it in the first place, I simply said “I know you do this all the time but if you need a hand please let me know”.  I figured it was the best way for me to acknowledge that I could help if she needed or wanted it, but that I didn’t want to assume she could not be independent.

I have had many clients tell me about situations in the community where people have made comments, or engaged in actions that are blatantly disrespectful.  I had one client enter Walmart in his wheelchair and the “Greeter” put a sticker on him saying “I am special”.  He was livid.  Or, at a recent course we watched a video of a client with quadriplegia trying a community outing for the first time since his injury.  As he struggled to manage his wallet and bank card the cashier was visibly annoyed.  Granted she was young, but clearly had no patience for this man that was struggling and her actions were clearly not going to make him feel any better.  On top of being compassionless, she didn’t offer him any assistance either.

Ontario has made some great strides in the domain of customer service.  Not only are commercial buildings to be accessible to people with mobility impairments, but now employers are responsible for training their staff on how to appropriately and effectively provide service to people of all abilities.  This is a great step in the direction of helping all people know how to manage service situations that require compassion, patience and understanding.  We have previously blogged about the Accessibility Legislature in Ontario and you can find that information here:  “Accessibility In Ontario.”

So, have you ever wondered how to navigate those waters?  Have you ever used the words “confined to a wheelchair” or “wheelchair bound”?  Do you understand the difference between handicap and disability?  Do you know how use of words like “cripple, invalid and retard” have changed over time to now be generally unacceptable ways to reference someone with a disability?  For people in wheelchairs, the wheelchair actually allows them freedom of movement.  It returns to them a level of function they lost when their legs stopped working.  For many of them, the ability to be independently mobile is not “confining” and does not make them “bound”.  It is now proper practice to put the “person” before the “disability” and to describe their situation as you would their hair color.  For example, “Julie has brown hair” has the same application as “Julie uses a wheelchair”.  How could I be offended by such a statement of fact?  I recently came across the following resource called “Watch Your Language” and find this is an excellent tool to help people that may not have regular contact or training speaking to or about people with disabilities to understand the nuances of language surrounding this topic.

But I think the most important thing to remember here is that not all disability is visible.  It is never good practice to speak negatively, disrespectfully or rudely about anyone.  Doing so just reflects poorly on you.  Remember that everyone has a story and the one you might make in your head about that person or their situation may not be accurate.  As Stephen Covey always said “talk about people like they are present”.  In the current movie Cinderella, I love the advice she gets from her dying mother: “have courage and be kind”.  Words to live by.

2 Comments

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  1. Todd H says:

    Well said Julie. For most on my life I was one of the people who never knew what to say. While I’m still young(ish) I’ve relied on a wheelchair the past few years. It’s been fascinating to see how people choose to interact or avoid. About half offer a smile, hold a door or ask if they can assist compared to the half that are visibly uncomfortable and painfully avoid making eye contact. I have the advantage of having been in their shoes while they haven’t been in mine so I try not get upset with either reaction. I can say that simple gestures like holding a door are appreciated as acts of kindness should always be.

    1. Erin Ridpath says:

      Thank you so much for your comment Todd. I completely agree that people with disabilities need to also have compassion for those that may appear “ignorant”, and that any gesture, regardless of how small, does go a long way!