Changing the Stereotype

Language is one of the most blatant ways that we show respect for one another

By Brian Potvin

Brian Potvin is a personal outcome measures interviewer for The Arc of Monroe. He is also a mentor for local advocacy groups The Self-Advocacy Alliance and Roc PrideAbilty. He is passionate about educating people with disabilities to be strong advocates for greater accessibility and inclusion in the Rochester community.
Brian Potvin is a personal outcome measures interviewer for The Arc of Monroe. He is also a mentor for local advocacy groups The Self-Advocacy Alliance and Roc PrideAbilty. He is passionate about educating people with disabilities to be strong advocates for greater accessibility and inclusion in the Rochester community.

Most of us in our lifetime have probably used the terms “handicapped” or “wheelchair-bound” to describe someone with a disability. We may have done this without ever realizing that it is offensive to people with disabilities. In fact, most of us were taught throughout most of our lives to use these terms. It was just as acceptable to us as it was to generations before us who were taught that words “lunatic” or “moron” were the proper terms to use to describe people with intellectual disabilities.  These words, which are extremely derogatory by nature, became even more derogatory as society turned them into insults.

Take a look at the word handicapped: Its offensive origins are present just by glancing at the term. At one time, it was used to describe beggars or helpless people who would stretch out their caps and ask for a handout. Is this the best word we can think of describe a person with a disability?

“Our mission is about diversity and inclusion in the community,” explains Lindsey Graser, director of marketing and communications for the Arc of Monroe. “This means using what we call ‘person centered language,’ which puts people first and does not focus on their disability.” For example, a person is not “wheelchair-bound,” but “uses a wheelchair.” A person is not called a “disabled person,” but rather a “person with autism” or a “person with a developmental or intellectual disability.” When you use language that is person centered and specific, your words empower someone instead of allowing them to fall under one of these labels.

The Arc of Monroe was previously known as the Associated for Retarded Citizens (ARC), but due to the derogatory nature of the ‘r’ word, the name was changed in 1992 to the Arc of the United States. Despite decades of advocacy to purge this offensive term from our language, the campaign to end the “r” word continues. The “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign began in 2009 with an effort bring awareness to clinical and personal use of this word.  This year on March 6, thousands of people will again take the pledge to not use this word. You can join The Arc of Monroe and sign to take the pledge or find out more at www.r-word.org.

People should not be defined by their disability; they are people first with strengths and weaknesses just like everyone else. When you see someone using a wheelchair, do not just assume they need help or that they are not capable of doing things independently.  Ask first, and they will tell you if they need help or not. If you are a waitress or nurse and assisting someone who has a disability, speak directly to the person not to whoever may be accompanying them. It’s also important to remember not to talk down to people and use a tone of voice that is respectful. Every person is capable in some way of communicating for themselves, whether verbally, gesturally, or by using a communication device such as a tablet.

Language is one of the most blatant ways that we show respect for one another. If you believe that all people are capable of living an independent and fulfilling life, then we should use language which reflects that. I urge you to take the time and think about the words you use to describe others, and how changing these words can positively impact the way we think about people who have disabilities. If we can change how we think and what we say, we can make the community, or even the world, a better place

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