Disability Etiquette or Over-Sensitivity?
Last month I was giving a keynote speech to a group of senior managers about the business case for disability equality. One of the points I was making was that the issue of disability equality is not going to go away; in fact it is going to become more important in the future. We live in an ageing population and many of us will be retiring later than previous generations.
Older people don’t always consider themselves ‘disabled’ but what they might describe as ‘not getting around as easily as they used to’ or, ‘not hearing or seeing as, well’ might very well be considered a disability as per the legal definition. The point I was making was a general one, I was saying that organisations that are good at making reasonable adjustments for disabled customers and staff will be well placed to be good employers of workforces of the future.
My point was not meant to be contentious. However, one of the managers in the room lived with a long-term, progressive condition and told me he found it ‘upsetting’ when I said, “we are all living longer”. He felt he was not going to ‘live longer’ and so did not like me using the expression.
I apologised if what I had said upset him as this was not my intention. However, I did not apologise for what I had said. I likened it to when a person might say, “as you can all see….” while pointing at a slide (something that the other presenter had said in that very session, despite there being three partially sighted people in the room)! To be fair, there was no animosity and I think we agreed to differ.
Having left the event I thought further about what I had said and the reaction of the manager. Was I wrong not to give a full apology? Was it thoughtless of me to have said what I said?
I spend much of my time delivering disability equality training and disability awareness training and both usually include a group exercise about disability language and terminology. I feel I am knowledgeable about current best practice on disability language and I understand the reasons why certain terms and phrases are not recommended anymore.
I also believe that context is important, as is the sentiment behind the language used. In this case, the context was that I was asked to give an overview of the business case for disability equality. The ageing workforce point was one of many and, as with all my other points, I was keeping it brief. I accept it was a sweeping statement, but it is a familiar one and one in which makes the point. Of course, we are not all living longer, some of us won’t make old bones for all sorts of reasons, but as a population we are living longer.
The other thing I spend a good deal of time doing is talking about not making assumptions or generalisations about disability and disabled people. I think this is so important, to the extent that the majority of barriers disabled people face stem from generalisations. Here I go making another one! However, this actually serves to highlight my point. Without ever making any generalisations, we’d never finish a sentence or get anything done! So, perhaps there needs to be a little acceptance somewhere along the line?
I think the language we use around disability is important. It is important because it can have a negative impact on the way people are made to feel. This should not be underestimated; hence my inclusion of language and terminology in my training sessions, but a little understanding is required from both parties.
The language and terminology section of my disability training is often cited as the most useful and participants generally appreciate the opportunity to consider what is likely to be the preferable things to say and avoid. Most people I come across do not want to patronise or offend and this describes me when I gave my speech. In the context of what I said the expression wasn’t an offensive thing to say and the sentiment was certainly not to upset anyone.
It is generally agreed that common phrases such as, ‘see you later’ and, ‘shall we walk or take the bus?’ are ok things to say to a blind person or a wheelchair user. It is my view that disabled people who get uptight about common phrases should look around them and get uptight with the real barriers they face, such as being ignored because you are blind or being unable to take the bus because it is not wheelchair accessible.