The Power of Words

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An op-ed by our Starkloff Career Academy advisors

Despite our efforts to create a just and equitable society, disability is still treated as a dirty word, a taboo term that we cautiously tiptoe around, desperate to avoid offending or alienating anyone.

As a society, we create euphemisms to soften the realities we’d rather not confront. According to Jason Hartsfield, Adult Career Services Coordinator at SDI, this watered-down language only serves to alienate people with disabilities even further.

“I get why people are reluctant to say the word ‘disability,’ but that just fuels the idea that it is a bad thing,” Jason explains. “When people say ‘special’ or ‘differently-abled,’ it’s denying an identity. It’s denying a group of people. You would never say a black person is differently colored. That would be incredibly offensive.”

There’s nothing shameful about having a disability. It’s not an unpleasant truth that needs to be diluted with language modification. Attitudes toward individuals with disabilities are what need to be modified.

As Director of the Starkloff Career Academy, Susan Menhard is the chief architect of a revolutionary curriculum that has helped countless job seekers with disabilities over the years. Because she has a significant disability herself and uses a wheelchair, though, people often treat her as an object of pity, adopting an over-the-top, patronizing tone they would never take into conversation with a non-disabled associate.

“At a restaurant, the waitress will be like, ‘Hi, sweety! How are you today?’ Then, she’ll turn to my attendant and ask her what I’ll be having,” Susan recalls. “Or someone will come by and say, ‘You look crooked; let me fix you.’ Actually, I was comfortable until you just did that. Thanks.

“What I run into a lot is just kind of a subtle message of, ‘I really wish you weren’t here, but you are, so I’m acting happy that you are.’ That’s the feeling I get a lot of times,” Susan notes.

Jason also notices the condescending manner in which Susan is frequently addressed.

“I can hear the change in the pitch of their voice, and I can see the expression on their face,” Jason observes. “It’s almost like infantilizing her—‘I’m sooo glad you’re here!’”

While people with obvious disabilities are regarded with pity, individuals with invisible disabilities are met with skepticism. Jason’s vision loss is significant but he isn’t totally blind. Since he doesn’t use a guide dog or walk with a cane, people assume he can see perfectly. Although constantly having to explain himself can be exhausting, it’s the indignation he’s often met with that is most irritating.

“When I confronted a bus driver who wouldn’t stop for me, he said, ‘Well, you’re not wearing a sign that says you’re disabled, so how am I supposed to tell? Don’t get mad at me.’ But when I pointed it out to the bus driver, he immediately got defensive about it, and that’s what makes me angry,” Jason recounts.

“I’ve walked out of a number of restaurants because of the attitudes of the wait staff who don’t seem to believe me when I tell them I can’t read the menu,” Jason reports. “Instead of helping, they turn and point at the menu, as if I just didn’t know it was there. Do I look stupid?”

People tend to avoid things that make them uncomfortable, and it’s this avoidance that fosters negative attitudes toward disability. Jason says that by leaning into your discomfort rather than running from it, you can fight against the stigmatization of disability and promote a more inclusive world.

“Everyone has their comfort zone, their very own box. If you’re picked up and hurled outside your box, the world is so big and scary that the first thing you do is go screaming back to the safety of your box. You lock the door and never come out again,” Jason describes.

“You find your learning edge when you’re able to look out a window in your box and become familiar with ideas you didn’t consider before,” Jason reveals. “By giving voice to the questions you might have, you make your box a little bigger.”

People with disabilities are also victimized by chronically low expectations, particularly pertaining to the workplace. You’re not likely to be part of a company’s diversity and inclusion effort if no one knows you’re there.

“People unconsciously assume that someone with a disability isn’t likely to be working. They’re just going to live off the government because that’s what disabled people do,” Susan laments. “It’s getting a little better, but people still seem surprised. It’s like, ‘Oh, you work? How do you do that? That’s wonderful!’”

When people with disabilities are primarily observed toiling in sheltered workshops and performing menial tasks like sweeping floors and wiping down tables, it creates a paternalistic dynamic in the working environment. People with disabilities aren’t earning jobs; their benevolent, non-disabled superiors are graciously allowing them to have jobs. This is the opposite of equitable.

If disability isn’t a prominent component of your company’s diversity and inclusion efforts, then what you have is a marketing slogan, not a core value. A few token, low-level hires won’t get it done. Equality in opportunity must pervade all levels of business.

Jason concludes, “If you’re an organization that wants to be committed to diversity, equity and inclusion, then people who represent the groups you want to appeal to need to be involved in your leadership decisions.”

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