The Accessibility Standard for Customer Service Regulation obligates Ontario businesses and their employees to communicate with persons with disabilities in a manner that takes into account the person’s disability. Employers must train employees to interact and communicate with people that have various types of disabilities. Training should also cover appropriate terminology.
When I returned to university, the topic of disability and accessibility terminology and use of words was frustrating. I learned about the social model of disability and the medical model of disability. The medical model of disability has crept into the psyche of society so that many of us often refer to a person by their disability or disease as opposed to their name and positive attributes. This medical model of describing people has led to unnecessary discrimination and stigmatization.
People with disabilities are not alone in wanting terminology to convey their positive abilities as human beings, rather than the negative language of their conditions. A case in point is a memorable encounter I had many years ago. My partner and I were invited for an evening to the house of a friend who wanted us to meet another couple that were close friends of her. We arrived first, and, prior to the other couple’s arrival, the hostess felt it necessary to tell the story of how the woman had been violently assaulted. I knew it was wrong for my friend to have labelled this woman a “victim” prior to introduction. I immediately asked if she was telling the story because the woman was still in a state of recovery. My host said no, the incident was years ago. My friend had labelled this woman a victim without malicious intent, but the severity of the story certainly made the encounter less pleasant than it could have been. The “victim” had no idea when she walked in the door that her friend had conveyed a tragic story that had occurred years ago. The woman was a delightful person whose company I’ve had the pleasure to enjoy on more than one occasion. Had I not been informed prior to introduction, I certainly would have had no indication there was a traumatic incident in her past. However, another person in that situation might have spent the evening awkwardly waiting for the woman to manifest a mental disability.
How we use our words to perpetuate negative stereotypes is important, and how we refer to another person is vital. But how can we recognize simple terms that, when combined with other words, may convey the wrong message? What do we do when words like “normal” or “average” are common terms in science, statistics, government policy, education and medicine, and have become socially functional words that may simultaneously be insulting? While attending school, I don’t think any of us appreciated receiving marks that were categorized as “below average”. The method of grading students is to inform the student, parents and education system at what level that individual is performing in relation to others. A low grade may make the student work harder to attain a higher rating. A consistently low grade, even after hard work and perhaps tutoring, may indicate the student is not adept in a particular topic. It has taken a long time for educators to admit that perhaps this method of grading is not appropriate, and perhaps “below average” students would benefit from an alternative teaching method.
It is interesting to see that words like “crippled” and “lame” have been readily accepted as negative terms. Yet because all of us are used to being graded in relation to the average from infancy, we have difficulty letting go of some words to refer to a person with a particular disability. When describing a person with a specific disability, the words “disorder”, “disease”, “below average” and “dysfunction” flow off the tongue and pages. Audiences absorb the negative associations from repeated use of these words in reference to people with disabilities.
Today, our understanding and social treatment of people with disabilities attempts to focus on a person’s “differing abilities” rather than his or her disabilities. While many advocacy groups have accepted “disability” as a necessary label, they want to focus on the “ability” portion of the word. For example, now it is common to write “disAbility” to remind a reader persons with disabilities still have abilities.
The terminology associated with disability is fluid and a word that may have been accepted last year may have changed this year; thus making the learning curve a little difficult. Finding the right words can be a daunting experience, but if you aim to stay within the lexicon of positive social words, you are going in the right direction.
This strategy also works when it comes to training. Unless specific employees need to know medical terms, there is no reason to provide medical reasons for the variety of disabilities they may encounter. For example, at no time does a server have a right to ask about the nature of a customer’s disability. Training should be based on alternative methods to communicate and interact when the customer is not responsive to a specific method. Under the customer service standard, every organization commits itself (explicitly in a mission or policy statement) to the core principles of dignity, independence, integration and equality.
You may draw parallels with other groups that have required us to shift our way of thinking and expressing ourselves. Minority groups have had to fight for the right to be treated as equal and to stop being the target of discrimination. Everyone has had to learn preferable methods to refer to previously marginalized groups. If you are old enough, you will remember numerous words used to describe people of varying ethnicities and cultures that perpetuated negative stereotypes. You may also remember that the appropriate words kept changing until the specific target group found an acceptable English word we can use in our communication.
By the way, did you hear the great joke about the “midget”? It is still a good laugh if the word is replaced with “little person”.
Suzanne Cohen Share, M.A., CEO
Access (SCS) Consulting Services