The power of words: Focusing on abilities first

Language shapes our perception of disability, influencing how we see strengths and challenges. Discover why the words we choose matter and how they can promote a more inclusive world.

Let’s talk about the language of disability. As a speech pathologist I spend a lot of my time thinking about and talking about language. But it wasn’t until I became a person with a disability that my appreciation of the importance of getting language right really came together.

Understanding accessible language

Take for example, this photo of a parking sign that I snapped recently. You probably recognize this symbol, but did you know it doesn’t actually mean ‘disabled’ or ‘disability’?

This symbol is the symbol for ‘accessible’ – perhaps more to the point thought,  I’m not sure how a car park can have a disability?

So, what would be a better sign here? Well, I think this sign should read ‘accessible parking’. Small difference in wording, huge difference in meaning.

Rethinking disability

It’s important to think critically about the language you use when you refer to a person who has a disability in your work and in your life. Disability is not a dirty word. But it also isn’t always the right word.

The social model of disability encourages us to think about how a person encounters their world, and to consider the impact that the world has on that person as the disabling (or ideally, the ability-promoting) factor.

If a person uses a wheelchair to get around, they are disabled if the entry to a building has steps, but they are not disabled if there is a ramp. The same goes for attitudes. If you approach a person with a disability as if they are not going to be able, then you’ll probably see their challenges more and before you see their strengths.

Someone once reminded me that people who are deaf or hard of hearing can do anything, they just can’t always hear. This has stuck with me, and it is something I think about regularly. It sounds so obvious, but at that time, it was a revelation that completely turned my thinking upside down.

I challenge you to consider strength and ability before challenge and disability in your work. Take a walk around your office and consider if it is a space that is welcoming for everyone. Better yet, ask your clients if the space works for them.  For every one person who shares their feedback, there will be many more who will also benefit from the changes you make.

We invite you to read a previous blog article by Jenna Bongioletti, titled “How to build effective teams in early intervention.”

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