Talk to appreciate

Think about this question: what words do you use (verbally and mentally) to refer to disability? 

Logo Dialogue Social Enterprise

Human beings have shaped our reality through our language. Words don't just come out of our mouths or our hands, they are our thoughts made sound. One day, the person who saw a bird fly thought of being able to fly too. Then he drew humans flying. Then he put it into words and then those words became reality. What we speak materializes in the world.

Many of the words we use to talk about disability are associated with limitation, loss, disease, deficit, etc. e.g. invalid, handicapped, mentally retarded, etc. That's how we absorbed it from the culture, and we never questioned it.

What is the effect of using these kinds of words? You yourself, even if you don't live with a disability, know what happens when the words used to refer to you are loaded with labels of inadequacy. Exactly, we buy into the story. The problem lies in the fact that society is perfectly designed for people with disabilities to live this story of limitation and deficit.

The opposite is also true. There is a tendency to use words associated with a remarkable positivism and exaggeration. For example, people with different abilities, people with determination, special people, etc. What is the effect? The same: we believe the story. The detail is that this reality does not exist, society is not at all designed to assimilate us as beings with extraordinary abilities, and that's good, because we are not. The people who use these words are lying to us.

However, conversations are happening that seek to rethink the words we use to address certain groups of people. And we celebrate it. There is talk of inclusive language to remedy language that has long been discriminatory.

We at DSE distinguish between language that appreciates and language that depreciates.

Says Harvard professor of positive psychology Tal Ben Shahar: "What you appreciate, appreciate. "What you ascribe value to, grows in value. It's a simple law of perceived value."

Think about what happens, for example, with tennis shoes of a certain prestigious brand. Their production cost is the same, or very close to the production cost of other less prestigious brands. How much are you willing to pay for those sneakers you love from your favorite brand? Would you be willing to pay the same for a less prestigious brand?

This is perceived value. And historically the perceived value of disability has been negative.

Words that stigmatize disability are in our collective language. These words have focused on the devaluation of the condition of disability.

I share with you three real, yet subtle, cases to explore what we call depreciative language.

First Case. I met the human talent director of a major transnational company before giving a lecture. We talked briefly about what we do at Dialogue in the Dark. His conclusion was, "What a beautiful role!"

Second case. I received a call. A client referred me to one of their brokers to process my payment through them. The woman on the phone asked me what event I had sold, and I briefly told her about Dialogue in the Dark workshops, "I can't believe that despite their problems they work for companies!"

Third case, taken from a colleague also visually impaired. When interviewing with the director of a kindergarten where she intended to enroll her daughter, the director asked her: "And is your daughter normal or is she like you?"

There are diverse ways of depreciating:

•    Superiority as in case 3: when you label people who are just like you (non-visually impaired) as "normal" and therefore people outside that group (visually impaired persons) as abnormal.
•    Demerit as in case 1: "what a beautiful role." The demerit comes because he being a businessperson, the adjective "beautiful" would not use it for an achievement in his company but would use it for a social or charitable activity. The word labor likewise has a social and not a business charge.
•    Evasion as in case 3: when you dodge the term "blind" or "visually impaired" and instead say "like you".
•    Disbelief as in case 2: "I can't believe..." You assume that living with a disability automatically marginalizes you from working life in a company.
•    Negative bias as in case 2: when the woman to refer to disability calls it a "problem." In this case it is assumed that living with disability is to live with a problem.

These are just a few examples, but there are many other ways to depreciate a person with a disability.

What to do?

Nowadays there are no excuses, on the internet there are thousands of guides on inclusive language. For example, this one that we at DSE like so much. Or this second link which is also very helpful.

But for us the root is to ask ourselves the question: with these words that I use, am I appreciating or depreciating the person to whom I am talking?