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

Just Posted

Sylvan Lake Midget Buccaneers secure playoff spot

The Midget Buccs defeated the Didsbury Chargers 11-6 on June 15 to close out regular season play

Sylvan Lake Yettis clinch league’s top spot

The Yettis have a first round bye and will play the second round of playoffs on home court, July 5-7

MP Blaine Calkins tables rural crime bill

Bill C-458 was tabled Friday, and proposes to amend the Criminal Code to account for rural residents

Sylvan Lake breaks ground on new water reservoir project

Town Council and staff were present at the ground breaking of the new reservoir, June 17

Mural for Sylvan Lake Community Food Bank underway

The 40 foot mural is a paint-by-number design in order to involve the community

VIDEO: Trans Mountain expansion project gets green light, again

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the decision in Ottawa on Tuesday afternoon

Horgan says he’ll still defend B.C. coast after second Trans Mountain approval

Meanwhile, one B.C. First Nation has announced plans for a legal challenge

Demonstrators on either side of Trans Mountain debate clash in Vancouver

Crowd heard from member of Indigenous-led coalition that hopes to buy 51% of expansion project

High Level on alert, as wildfires put more people on the run in northern Alberta

Thousands in High Level were just allowed back home, and now must get ready to leave again

VIDEO: Toronto Raptors announcer credited with calming crowds after shooting

Matt Devlin, the Raptors’ play-by-play announcer since 2008, was praised for preventing panic from spreading

Two people arrested after Wetaskiwin vehicle theft

Wetaskiwin RCMP respond to theft of motor vehicle

Deadline for cabinet to decide future of Trans Mountain expansion is today

International Trade Minister Jim Carr described the decision as ‘very significant’

UPDATE: Two shot, two arrested at Toronto Raptors victory rally

The team and several dignitaries, including Justin Trudeau, remained on stage

Oil and gas sector cautious as deadline on Trans Mountain decision nears

Trudeau government expected to announce whether it will approve pipeline for second time on Tuesday

Most Read