The Words We Use Are Powerful

The Words We Use Are Powerful
Monday, October 23, 2017
Two women organizing papers

Author: Kathy Petkauskos, Director of Work Without Limits

Many leading companies are using specific, well-versed practices to create disability-inclusive cultures. An extremely helpful first step in this process is providing disability-related training for all employees including leaders and managers, recruiting staff, and associates. 

Training topics may include:

  • Disability awareness and sensitivity
  • Disability etiquette
  • Interviewing
  • Conducting performance discussions
  • Workplace accommodations

Training helps to increase the confidence, competence and comfort level of managers and other employees when interacting with colleagues and customers that have disabilities.

Training also helps to dispel the myths and misconceptions that tend to surround people with disabilities and it helps to create work environments where all employees feel accepted and supported.

Disability etiquette training specifically focuses on:

  • Appropriate language and communications
  • Not letting fear or self-doubt prevent you from initiating conversations
  • Tips on offering assistance to a person with a disability

Training is crucial to providing the best work environment to employees with disabilities. It also allows for all employees to communicate and work together more harmoniously.

The words we use are powerful and can convey the attitudes we have toward a particular subject. Even a slight change in a phrase can alter context and communicate a very different meaning than the original phrasing.  This is true when referring to people with disabilities.

Some people with disabilities favor ‘person-first language’ and others prefer ‘identity-first language,’ while some don’t have a preference at all. 

Person-first language is when the person comes before the disability in the description such as “the woman who is visually impaired” as opposed to “the blind woman.” This emphasizes the value of the individual by recognizing them as a person first instead of focusing on their condition.

Individuals in some communities prefer identify-first language, which puts the disability first in the description. The thought behind this is that it’s impossible to affirm the worth of a person without recognizing his or her identity as disabled. 

For example, some adults with autism prefer to say that they are “autistic” rather than saying that they “have autism”. That said, there is not universal agreement on this terminology. When in doubt, use person-first language.

Both approaches want to accentuate the value and worth of the individual. The best practice is to listen to the language that the individual is using and adopt the same terminology. The most important thing to remember is to be inclusive and respectful with the words you use.

To watch a short disability etiquette video produced by the DC Office of Disability Rights please click here.

Men sitting and listening

For information regarding disability etiquette, refer to the Work Without Limits Disability Etiquette guide.

Click Here

Man listening to training and smiling

For a list of training and descriptions offered to employers by Work Without Limits:

Click Here

If you are interested in a training for your company's employees, please contact us.

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Author bio: Kathy Petkauskos is the Director of Work Without Limits and Associate Director of the Disability, Health and Employment Policy unit at UMass Medical School. Kathy lives in Hudson, Massachusetts and is the mother of two children both of whom have disabilities and are now grown adults living and working successfully!