American singer Lizzo was recently slammed for using a derogatory term for people with cerebral palsy–a brain condition that affects movement and co-ordination. In her new song ‘Grrrls,’ Lizzo makes a reference to being “spastic,” a disability which makes it difficult for people to control their muscles.
“Every time a celebrity with enormous cultural capital uses an ableist slur–whether in a song or an interview–it perpetuates the marginalization of people with disabilities,” Leslie A. Zukor, 37, a journalist and disability advocate in New York tells Inc. ” As a disabled person, I don’t think the general population realizes how fraught these slurs are with pain and trauma in my community.”
Making this kind of mistake isn’t just confined to celebrities, however. Business leaders should also mind what they say and even what they train their employees to say. Sensitivity training is one way to combat harmful word-choice, for instance, suggests Zukor. “When ableist slurs are normalized in the workplace–or anywhere else–what ends up happening is that disabled people further internalize the societal perception that we are inferior,” says Zukor.
To create a more inclusive workplace, here’s a checklist.
1. Cut the following words from your lexicon.
Your sensitivity journey should start by learning a list of words you should not use when referring to employees with disabilities, according to the Disability Language Style Guide. That includes words like “insane,” “insanity,” “crazy,” “loony,” “mad,” “psycho,” “nuts,” “deranged,” “mentally retarded.” These words were once commonly used to describe people with mental illness but can be offensive. Use the term “mental illness,” “mentally deranged,” or “intellectually disabled,” instead of “insane,” for instance. The medical profession favors using the term “psychopathology” when denote mental instability.
2. Take care how you characterize a person’s abilities.
When describing the nature of a person’s disability, the word “condition” is preferred as it avoids judgment. You can say “people with mental health conditions,” for instance, but there is no universal agreement on the usage of these terms. Using the term “special” can be problematic when referring to people with disabilities, but it is ubiquitous when it comes to medical references like “special education.”
Simply referring to people as being “disabled” can also require extra caution. Some people may prefer to be called “differently able,” for instance, because “dis” means “not,” which means “not able.” Some consider “differently abled” condescending, offensive or simply a way of avoiding talking about disability. So it might be wise to ask your employees their preference when possible.
3. Avoid generalizing a person’s abuses.
While it is usually acceptable to use terms like “disabled,” note that people who have disabilities, as a group, are not monolithic. Avoid referring to “the disabled” in the same way that you would avoid referring to “the Asians,” “the Jews” or “the African Americans.”
“Blind” is another blanket term that shouldn’t be. It is, however, acceptable to refer to people as “blind” or “legally blind” if they have complete or almost complete vision loss. For others who have a loss of vision, the American Foundation for the Blind uses the term “low vision,” which it describes as “uncorrectable vision loss that interferes with daily activities.” The foundation says that other terms commonly used to describe vision loss–“partial sight,” “partial blindness” and “poor vision”–are no longer in general use.
Other commonly used (but acceptable) terms include:
a) Limited vision: Acceptable when a person is not legally or completely blind
b) Low vision: Acceptable when a person is not legally or completely blind
c) Partially sighted: Used most often in British publications for those not legally or completely blind but less acceptable in the US
d) Visually impaired: similar to the term impaired, some may object to it because it describes the condition in terms of a deficiency.
4. Use people-first language.
An alcoholic is someone who has the disease of alcoholism, while alcoholism itself is characterized by a loss of control in alcohol use, according to the American Psychiatric Association. So someone who simply drinks a lot might not qualify. What’s more, even if someone does qualify, it’s recommended to use people-first language, such as “someone recovering from alcoholism” or “someone with an alcohol addiction,” according to the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment.
The same goes for people who suffer from a neurobiological condition that is characterized by interruptions in speech. While the word “stuttering” is preferred over “stammering,” according to organizations such as the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, the Mayo Clinic, and the National Stuttering Association, people-first language is generally preferred.
5. Use descriptors when possible.
When in doubt, use descriptors. From person of color to “short stature,” “little person” or “someone with dwarfism,” descriptors can help you avoid some ambiguity. One more note about status. Dwarfism is a medical or genetic condition that results in a stature below 4 feet 10 inches, according to Little People of America, a nonprofit organization that provides support and information to people of short stature and their families. And while you can use the word “dwarf” when referring to the genetic condition, it is often considered offensive when used in a non-medical sense. Avoid the terms “vertically challenged” and “midget” when describing people with a medical or genetic condition resulting in short state.
Beyond language, having flexible policies around working remotely makes life much easier for employees with disabilities. Zukor adds that the workplace has become so much more accessible for disabled people during the pandemic. “I don’t want to see us go backward in our haste to put Covid behind us.”