I am the communications director for an organization that provides supports for people with disabilities. One of the biggest challenges to my communication work is referring to the people we support in the written and spoken word. Many of my efforts are directed to the general public—not people who work in the same field I do—and the vocabulary of our field often leaves them confused.
Over the years, as most of you are aware, there have been different terms used to describe the people who receive supports from our organization. Many, many years ago, words that were initially used as descriptive terms came to be seen as hurtful and disrespectful. Most people are surprised to hear that terms like “Feeble-minded,” “Moron,” and “Idiot,” were not vocabulary designed for insults but to describe people with disabilities. Later “Mental Retardation,” was used clinically and from that the shortened and derisive term “retard” originated.
The term “Client” evolved as a more respectful choice and was later replaced with the term “Consumer.” Consumer was preferred because a “consumer” chooses services and supports and therefore it was believed it connoted power and respect. Over time, some would argue that the term “consumer” merely became yet another label.
The term “Developmental Disability” is preferred by many, but in 2013, the Social Security Administration officially replaced that with “Intellectual Disability.” Many argue that “Intellectual Disability” is unclear because by definition it would apply to people with Alzheimers Disease, Mental Illness and Traumatic Brian Injuries.
So what is the answer? And how do we respond to people in and out of our field who say “Well, we’ve got to call them something?”
A therein lies the challenge—do WE (whoever WE are!) have to call THEM (whoever THEMare!) anything?
You might think “Well, we call people ‘Butchers,’ ‘Bakers,’ and ‘Candlestick Makers’ and that’s ok, isn’t it?”
Actually, in terms of writing it is okay but it is lazy writing. People are never one thing and when expressing a description of a person, it would be more accurate to say, “That person butchers meat, that person bakes bread and that person makes candlesticks.” We don’t equate a person’s totality with their occupation, nor should we.
So, it is an even lazier communication skill to describe a person by a single condition or diagnosis.
It takes just a little more effort to not label people, but it is a worthwhile effort. Once you become mindful of the practice it will seep into all your descriptions, not merely those of people who happen to have disabilities.
Now, there’s one more concern that some may find too much of a reach. I’ve heard a fair number of people substitute the term “Individuals” in instances in which they formerly used the term “Consumers.” Individuals may be more respectful but, to me, it sounds suspiciously like a word that could very quickly become a label. How often do we use the term “Individuals” who are not a group of people we support?
Do you say “I’m having dinner with some individuals tonight?” Do you say “Wow, there were 50,000 individuals at the Yankees game last night!” or “The individuals in my bowling league are a lot of fun.”
Even though this phraseology isn’t literally offensive or even ill-intended, it does seem to be awkward at best.
Referring to people who receive supports as “The Guys” or “Folks” is a bit problematic too, I think. You may argue that it is a term of affection and terms that you use for other people in your life that you care for. I don’t disagree that this might be the case, but “The Guys” and “Folks,” as charming as those expressions might be, is patronizing. It may be well-intended but it does suggest a grouping of people with a label.
The solution? Don’t define anyone by a characteristic, behavior or single trait.
A person who lives in a community residence doesn’t have to be “a client,” “a consumer,” “a resident” or even “an individual.”
You could say or write:
“Jane lives in a community residence.” Or “Joe lives in a house with two other men. They receive supports from Wildwood.”
A student doesn’t have to be described as a “special-ed student.” You could say:
“Marie is a student at Wildwood School.” Or, “Muhammad is a student at Wildwood School, and receives special education supports.”
A person who attends Day Supports doesn’t have to be referred to as a “consumer,” “day-habber” or “individual.” Instead you could say:
“Juanita attends Eastgate, where she participates in day supports.” Or, “Ira participates in day supports.”
The intent of this isn’t to scold or make anyone feel guilty about communication. Rather, it is to provide food for thought on how to be respectful, accurate and supportive.