Do you say ‘disabled person’ or ‘person with a disability’? Do you say ‘uses a wheelchair’ or ‘in a wheelchair’.
Disability etiquette. It’s one of those things that nobody wants to get wrong and yet on the most part we’re too anxious about causing offence that we don’t ever ask for help.
Even writing this post has been a delicate process. You write each sentence with a finger poised and ready, hovering over the ‘delete’ button.
Sadly, sometimes we let our anxiety over saying the wrong thing stand in the way of talking about disability at all. And in the end – although the wrong term can cause momentary pain or hurt – the real risk is that disability can become increasingly hidden, a forgotten issue.
It’s because of this that the Victorian Government has released a new set of guidelines, which detailing to correct way to refer to people with disabilities.
It’s disability etiquette 101, if you will.
The overarching rule is: use language to focus on the person and not the person and not the disability. So rather than ‘blind person’ go with ‘person who is blind.’ And instead of ‘vegetable,’ say ‘person who is in a coma’. Don’t say ‘disabled toilet,’ say ‘accessible toilet.’
But moving on from the finer points of language there are the bigger issues. Words that have historically been used to describe people with a disability but that have somehow managed to become school yard slang…
We’ve all been there: standing at the park, pushing the kids on the swings and you hear a seven year old boy call his mate a ‘retard’ when he misses a kick. A little girl is on her way home from ballet class and awkwardly practicing third position when her sister tells her to stop because she looks ‘spastic’.
That’s the big stuff the stuff that really matters. Using ugly words that send a message that disability makes someone a lesser person.
This campaign out of the US is absolutely bloody brilliant. It takes the word ‘retard’ and turns it on its head.
Take a look:
So next time you stub your toe or pour too much milk into your cereal bowl, don’t, don’t, don’t call yourself a retard. Can we suggest you try ning nong instead?
This is audio of Em and Dave from Mamamia’s radio show Mamamia Today chatting to disability advocate, Stella Young. They asked her what is OK to say – and what’s not OK to say to a person with a disability.