February 11, 2010
Social media, politics and the language of disabilities collided recently when former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin blasted White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel on her Facebook page over Emanuel’s apparent misuse of the word “retarded.” This episode provided a teachable moment for anyone interested in proper and responsible communication with regard to disabilities.
During the first week of February, Emanuel issued an apology for a remark he made in a closed-door meeting with White House aides and leaders of liberal special interest groups. Upon learning that the liberal groups were planning to run an ad campaign against conservative Democrats who did not support their health care reform agenda, Emanuel called the liberal group, “F---ing retarded.”
The Wall Street Journal reported about this remark, which led Palin to call for Emanuel’s firing. (Her son Trig has Down’s Syndrome.)
Palin’s post on Facebook led to an avalanche of mainstream media coverage of the incident, but perhaps more important, it spotlighted the issue of word choice and the impact it has on communications
More often than not, people who say or do the wrong thing in reference to disabilities do not intend to offend others. Yet, in communications, we learn that words matter because they reflect attitudes.
Disrespectful language can sometimes pose greater barriers for people with disabilities than the other physical, intellectual or emotional challenges that they may face. Poor word choice can lead those with disabilities to feel excluded or ostracized in groups and in the workplace.
While the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has helped break down numerous physical barriers and has helped establish more fair and equitable hiring and management practices across the country, the use of exclusionary language is an obstacle that people with disabilities continue to face.
Both morale and productivity in the workplace can suffer when employees and managers without disabilities have trouble connecting with those who have disabilities. In addition, the language of exclusion has led to an increasing number of people with disabilities who are filing claims of disability discrimination and harassment.
Chris Kuczynski of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Office of Legal Counsel told the Society of Human Resource Management online in September 2007 that the EEOC receives “more ADA charges each year than charges alleging age discrimination.”
What you can do
With this in mind, here are some basic guidelines that adhere to the people-first philosophy of inclusive communications.
For starters, it’s best to refer to a person’s disability only when it’s relevant to the discussion. When the general discussion turns to accommodations, such as parking spaces, ramps or other measures, the descriptor “accessible” is preferred over “handicapped,” as in “accessible parking spaces.”
When describing people without disabilities, it’s not advisable to call them “normal” or “healthy” — doing so implies that those with disabilities are “abnormal” or “unhealthy.”
Here are some other words to avoid: retarded, slow, special, challenged, crippled, handicapped, mute, infirm, invalid, disturbed, crazy, unstable, lame, midget, victim or sufferer (as in cancer victim), wheelchair-bound, diabetic or epileptic.
The people-first philosophy describes people as individuals and doesn’t identify them by their disability. Here are some examples: wheelchair user; person with epilepsy; person who is visually impaired; person with hearing difficulty or deafness; person with mobility disabilities; and survivor (as in cancer survivor).
Non-verbally, your eyes say a lot to people with disabilities. It is particularly important to make eye contact and not focus on a wheelchair or crutch. When you speak to people with hearing difficulties, make sure to face them when speaking so that they will be able to read your lips and hear you better.
As for protocol, it is important to obtain permission before physically touching a person with a disability even if you are trying to be helpful. Sudden movements or touch can actually cause a person with a disability to be thrown off balance and create other problems.
If you plan a meeting with someone who has a disability, consider locations that provide easy access.
Some controversial court cases involving claims of disability discrimination or harassment have involved people with mental or emotional disabilities. When managing employees who may have a diagnosed mental health condition, don’t assume that “tough love” or a rigid management style will work. Human resource departments and consultants are excellent resources to help establish the most effective accommodations.
Finally, always remember to be positive and encouraging, but mostly, treat someone with a disability the same way that you would treat anyone else.