In the world of Special Education there is an awesome philosophy called “people first language.” It is best practice for educators – anyone really – to refer to someone as a “person with a disability” as opposed to a “disabled person.” Makes sense, right? The trick is to treat them like a person first too, and this can present a challenge even to the most charitable among us.
One way to show people that we think they are people is how we talk to them. This excellent article gives some tips on how to talk to a person who has a disability as a person first. It’s a powerful thing to do for someone – and a powerful way to hurt someone too, as we all know from our own experience, whether we ourselves struggle with a disability or not.
I had a friend with Cerebral Palsy and found great power in just speaking to him normally. Pulling up a chair so I was level with him also helped. It was very difficult to understand what he said, but I would smile, look him in the eye and say “I am so sorry, could you say that one more time?” like I would with someone with a strong accent. He knew conversing with him was a challenge, and he was grateful for my patience. I imagined how frustrated he must be to have a perfectly functional mind, but to be avoided because his appearance and speech made others uncomfortable. Assuming the other person is of equal value and potential as yourself, and communicating with them as an equal, makes it easy to be respectful. With some practice, it can even become natural.
I hope you will share your experiences here. How has someone made you feel like a better person by how they talked to you? What successes have you had with lifting others – with or without disabilities – with your words? I’m excited to learn from you!