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Embracing Respectful Language: A Guide to Interacting with Persons with Disabilities (PwD) Confidently

A Real-Life Anecdote

My friend, a person with muscular dystrophy and a wheelchair user, is an employee of a large Indian conglomerate. He was supposed to introduce a guest (also a PwD) during a conference. He chose the term "differently-abled" to introduce the guest, thinking this term would be apt and respectful. The guest, later when conversing with the employee, objected to being called differently-abled. He said, "I have several challenges, and I prefer to be respectfully called disabled than differently-abled." My friend, himself having several challenges, was perplexed for a bit, then realized he had mistakenly assumed the preference of the other PwD. Even persons with disability admit they have made mistakes in their language and behaviour with other PwD and that even after 15-20 years, they are still learning.

In today's world, fostering an inclusive and considerate environment is crucial, particularly when interacting with Persons with Disabilities. Language plays a pivotal role in creating such an atmosphere. This blog aims to provide insights into respectful disability language and communication etiquette so that we can interact confidently with persons with different types of disabilities and enhance inclusion.

Understanding the Importance of Respectful Language

Effective communication involves more than just asking or conveying information; it requires understanding, empathy and some training. When interacting with PwD, it becomes even more vital to choose words and phrases that respect their individuality and preserve their dignity.

Navigating Conversations with PwD - A Quiz

Note: If you attempt to respond to these questions before reading the answers, it will enhance your learning.

1. How should I address a PwD?

In a formal context, the most courteous approach is to ask directly, "How should I address you?" and in an informal context, "Hi, What's your name?" Call individuals by their names as far as possible. This approach is simple, respectful, and avoids labels and potential discomfort.

2. Is a common way of addressing all PwD okay?

It is essential to recognize that preferences for addressing individuals with disabilities vary. What might be acceptable for one person could be inappropriate or even upsetting for another. Always prioritize individual preferences over assumptions. It is not appropriate to address all PwD in a common way, ex. "All the disabled people in the room…"

3. Is "Girl in the wheelchair" or "wheelchair-bound" appropriate? What's appropriate?

No, these terms are not appropriate. Use "wheelchair user" as it emphasizes the tool, they use for mobility rather than defining their identity. Using "wheelchair-bound" implies a limitation, while many individuals use wheelchairs for independence and mobility and are not bound by it. The term "wheelchair user" is more accurate and respectful.

4. Is "Handicapped Parking Lot" or Handicapped Toilet" appropriate? What's appropriate?

Opt for the term "Accessible Parking Lot" and "Accessible Toilet" to emphasize inclusivity and eliminate stigmatization. Handicapped is an outdated term and is potentially offensive. Accessible means it can be accessed comfortably and is more dignified.

5. Which is more appropriate? Disabled or differently-abled or person with a disability?

Some prefer one over the other. Respect individual preferences. It is advisable to ask the person which term they prefer. Some persons are fine with the term disabled while others are not. Some persons want to be called differently-abled while others find it vexing. By and large, person with a disability is the most accepted. When talking about someone, you can also say, "living with a disability" instead of "suffering with a disability."

6. Can a non-disabled person be called "normal?" What should they be called?

Avoid using "normal" to describe non-disabled individuals. It indicates persons with disability are not normal and this can be offensive. Instead, use "a person without a disability" or "non-disabled person" to promote neutrality.

Exploring the Nuances of Respectful Disability Language

Respectful disability language involves recognizing the person beyond their disability. It acknowledges the diversity within the disability community and promotes inclusivity. Once you can assimilate these concepts, you will feel more confident in your interactions.

Promoting Inclusivity in Language

In the quest for inclusivity, language plays a pivotal role. While the phrases mentioned in the quiz above are a starting point, it's crucial to understand that respectful language goes beyond specific terms.

Inclusive language fosters a sense of belonging and dignity. Instead of focusing on limitations, it highlights capabilities, emphasizing the person's humanity over their disability. It recognizes that each individual is unique, with their preferences and choices.

The Power of Person-First Language

Person-first language places the person before their disability. For instance, saying "a person with a disability" instead of "disabled person" emphasizes that the disability doesn't define the individual. Saying "person with Autism" is better than "Autistic person". Saying "she cannot see" is better than saying "she is a blind person".

Saying "person with deafness" is better than "deaf perso"n though many deaf people prefer to be called deaf person (Identity-First instead of Person-First). This is precisely why we must ask for their preference rather than following a blanket rule.

By using person-first language, we shift the narrative from focusing solely on the disability to recognizing the person's humanity, talents, and abilities. This simple adjustment in language contributes significantly to creating an inclusive and respectful environment.

Beyond Words: Non-Verbal Communication and Inclusivity

Respectful communication extends beyond spoken or written words. Non-verbal cues, such as gestures, facial expressions, and body language, play a crucial role in fostering an inclusive atmosphere.

When engaging with PwD, it's essential to be attentive to non-verbal cues.

Scenario of an interaction between Viki and Annie who is a wheelchair user

Viki: [Notices Annie navigating a crowded room with her wheelchair.]

Viki: Hi there! Need any help navigating through the crowd?

Annie: Oh, thanks, but I'm good for now. I appreciate the offer.

[Viki notices Annie struggling a bit with a door.]

Viki: Hey, can I hold the door for you?

Annie: That would be great, thanks!

[As they continue talking, Viki observes Annie's body language for signs of discomfort or preference.]

Viki: By the way, do you prefer any specific terms when people offer help?

Annie: Oh, that's considerate! I usually appreciate a simple "Can I help?" or "Do you need assistance?"

Viki: Got it. I'll keep that in mind. If you ever need anything, just let me know.

[They continue their conversation while navigating through the room just like any persons without disability, and Viki watches for Annie's cues throughout the interaction.]

Championing Accessibility: A Shared Responsibility

In addition to language, promoting accessibility is vital in creating an inclusive environment. Ensure that physical spaces, digital platforms, and communication materials are accessible to everyone, irrespective of their abilities.

Consider implementing accessibility features, such as ramps, elevators, and assistive technologies. Embracing accessibility goes hand-in-hand with using respectful language, reinforcing the commitment to treating everyone with dignity and equality.

Conclusion: A Call for Respectful Communication

Respectful disability language is a fundamental aspect of fostering inclusivity and understanding. It's not about adhering to a set of rigid rules and terms but rather about recognizing the diversity of experiences and preferences within the disability community. And about being willing to learn how to communicate respectfully.

As we navigate conversations with PwD, let's prioritize open communication, actively seeking and respecting individual preferences. By championing respectful language, we contribute to a society where everyone is acknowledged, valued, and included.

Remember, words have the power to shape perceptions and influence attitudes. Let's use them wisely, with empathy and consideration, as we work together to build a world that celebrates human diversity.


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