Mary Ann McColl is Associate Director at the Centre for Health Services and Policy Research, Queen’s University. (Queen’s University photo)

Should I say ‘disabled person’ or ‘person with a disability’??

Disability is a sensitive topic, and fear of saying the wrong thing stops some from saying anything at all

Recently, an Alberta woman with an obvious physical disability was asked to leave a grocery store and not come back because she could not pack her own groceries quickly enough. According to the report on CBC’s Go Public, the checkout clerk said she was slowing down the line as she struggled to bag her groceries, and the store said no staff were available to help her. Presumably, neither were other patrons.

This story is consistent with what many disabled people say they experience. The Human Rights Commission says that almost 60 per cent of all claims cite disability as the basis for discrimination. People with disabilities are routinely denied the rights we all know they are entitled to. A poll commissioned by the Rick Hansen Foundation, found that 90 per cent of Canadians agree that accessibility for people with physical disabilities is a right, not a privilege, but there is still a clear prejudice in how disabled people are treated.

Disability is a sensitive topic. Fear of saying the wrong thing prevents people from saying anything at all, and makes us avoid having important conversations about disability. This avoidance in turn creates the kind of toxic environment that leads to situations such as the one described above.

In our research at the Canadian Disability Policy Alliance, we worked with disability advocacy groups to assemble some guidelines to help readers gain confidence in their ability to participate in positive ways in the dialogue with people with disabilities. Here, we share those guidelines:

Listen to how people talk about themselves

The Canadian government has advocated “people-first” language which emphasizes putting the person first and the disability second: for example, saying a person with a spinal cord injury, or a person with a history of depression. Many disabled people, however, say the disability is not inside of them: they are not a “person with a disability.” Rather they are a “disabled person” — someone who is disabled by a world that is not equipped to allow them to participate and flourish. But they are a person either way. Avoid objectifying people by referring to them as “the disabled.” Our advice is to listen to how people talk about their disability themselves, and take your cue from them.

Avoid euphemistic language

Language like “differently-abled” or “diverse-ability” suggests there is something wrong with talking honestly and candidly about disability. It might even suggest to some people that there is something shameful about disability; or that we can’t talk about it directly unless we make it cute or pretty or funny.

Avoid unnecessary emotional tone

Disability is a fact of life for almost one-quarter of Canadians. Having a disability doesn’t make someone a hero, a saint, a victim, a burden or a soldier. This type of hyperbole gets in the way of having authentic relationships with people with disabilities. These words suggest one-dimensional characters. Instead, think: complex, interesting people, just like everyone else.

Avoid ‘handicap’

The word handicap or handicapped is viewed as having a negative connotation — an implication that people with disabilities are disadvantaged in society. That social disadvantage is something we should fight against, rather than merely accept and enshrine in language.

Avoid calling a disabled person a ‘patient’

A patient is a passive individual who has turned over responsibility for important decisions to a health professional. People with disabilities for the most part live independent lives in the community. They are no more patients than anyone else getting on with their lives in the community.

Avoid calling non-disabled people ‘normal’

If non-disabled people are normal, then that means that disabled people are abnormal. Yet disability is the norm for some people. It is alienating and marginalizing to classify someone as “abnormal.”

Refer to a person’s disability?

Is the disability a pertinent issue in the conversation you are having or the introduction you are making? We don’t specify a person’s gender, ethnicity, occupation or many other personal details when introducing them. Disability is a condition of life, like those others. It will be salient in some conversations and not in others.

Here are some ‘dos’

Do look people with disabilities in the eyes and address them courteously, as you would anyone else.

Do ask if you can help, and how you can help.

Do assume that people with disabilities have something to say, and be prepared to hear it.

Do talk about disability. It’s a fact of life for 22 per cent of Canadians.

The more we talk about it, the easier it gets to have the important conversations we need to have with disabled people, and to ensure that the rights we promise to all Canadians are extended to them.

Mary Ann McColl, Professor, Queen’s University, Ontario , The Canadian Press

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

West Kootenay snowpack nearing record levels

High snowpack can mean a greater risk of flooding in spring, say forecasters

Whitewater offering ski program for people with cognitive impairments

Discounted tickets for skiers and chaperones, as well as lessons, are available

Breanna Faulkner, Kootenay Swim Club win at Kelowna Snowfest

Faulker won four medals, including two gold

Calendars for a cause: Linocut calendars raise funds for Kalein Centre

The last few calendars and cards are available at Cowan’s Office Supplies and Zinnia Textiles

VIDEO: Kootenay Patricks, Montreal Canadiens play to the crowd in Nelson

The charity game was a spectacle from puck drop

Officials reaching out to those in contact with Canada’s first coronavirus patient

The illness has sickened at least 1,975 people and killed 56 in China

Canada’s basketball community mourns Kobe Bryant after helicopter crash

Bryant was an 18-time NBA all-star who won five championships

‘Devastated’: Fans, celebrities remember Kobe Bryant after his death

Bryant played all of his 20-year career with the NBA with the Los Angeles Lakers

Kobe Bryant, daughter killed in California helicopter crash

Bryant entered the NBA draft straight out of high school in 1996

Investigation launched after six dead puppies dumped in Richmond hotel parking lot

RAPS reminds people they can always give up puppies they can’t take care of

Canadian Lunar New Year celebrations dampened by coronavirus worries

But Health Minister Patty Hajdu said today that the risk of infection is low

B.C. VIEWS: New coronavirus outbreak an important reminder

Walking the line between cautious and alarmist

Risk of coronavirus low in B.C. as first case emerges in Toronto: officials

There have been no confirmed cases of the virus in B.C.

Most Read