Marietta Mehanni

Language (of Disability)

blog language of disability marietta mehanni education professional development group fitness personal training

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October 14, 2021

This blog was written by Carol Syer.

In my 30+ years in the fitness Industry, I have seen it continue to grow and mature, we have become more aware and more inclusive. We have become more educated and with that knowledge we are becoming more welcoming for People with Disability.

Having spent my life living with someone with a disability, I have never really stumbled over correct language or worried about what to say or do around a person with disability as I often see with others.  We simply don’t know what we don’t know and I hope to help explore language and provide some easy-to-understand dos and don’ts when it comes to Language of Disability.

Now firstly, I want to make it very clear, I do not speak for anyone with a disability. No one can. Every person with a disability is an individual and there is no check list of ‘say this but don’t say that’, that will cover every person and every situation, it simply doesn’t work like that.

The most important thing to take away, is Individuality. People with Disability are professors, teachers, doctors, cleaners, factory workers, unemployed, advocates, mothers, uncles, they are unique and individual, no two people are the same.

To be told I was skinny was not a complement

Words have power: can you think of a word that was used to describe you at some stage in your life, that you hated, or offended you? I can, I was a small built child and my older brother called me “Skinny Ribs”, not in a fun big brother way but in a “I’m teasing you mercilessly way and said with offence”. 

Working in the fitness industry I have heard the word skinny used in many ways, for example “you’re so lucky you’re so skinny”, or “you can eat that as you’re so skinny”, people thinking they are giving a compliment but I find that word offensive. I always wanted to be more muscly and to be told I was skinny was not a complement. Skinny means different things to different people.  I know, first world problems, but can you imagine a word used to describe you every day, several times a day, a word you don’t want to be associated with constantly, you want to be seen for you.  That’s how my daughter Caitlin feels, she has an intellectual disability, it doesn’t define her, she is a young adult going about her life like everyone else, she gets sick to death of the word, “disability” defining her.

Ableism is favouring neuro-typical people and the exclusion and devaluating of people living with a disability, Ableist language is language that is offensive to people with disability.  Negative, abusive, derogatory language about disability is ableist.  Some words can be offensive in one context, but inoffensive in another. For example, if I use the word normal, e.g. my normal routine in the morning is… that is fine, but if I’m referring to a person with disability and I compare them or the program, school etc to the normal person, program etc, that is offensive. For example, we have an all-abilities children’s class in our centre, if you don’t want to attend that, we also have the normal kids’ class, that is offensive!

Many words have their roots in medical past, for example retard, moron, spastic, insane, lunatic, crazy, mental, handicapped. These were words that were once used to describe patients in hospitals. Language changes over time, society adopts and changes words. Words that were once acceptable can become offensive.

A words origin doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to use it. These words are very offensive and should not be used.  The way society has used words such as retard and spastic have often been in situations to have a “laugh” or” a go” at mate or someone if they are perhaps, uncoordinated, or trip or fall for example, this is putting a person with an intellectual disability or someone with Cerebral Palsy down. Not only should you not use these words, you need to call it out, if you hear it, explain its offence, just because no one with a disability may be around you when the word is said doesn’t mean its not offensive. People with disability also have mums, dads, brothers and sisters and family who constantly watch their loved ones put up with this ableist language. A word meaning cannot be erased with good intention. Ableist language shows people with disability that they aren’t valued.

Language around disability is evolving

Language around disability is evolving and changing and is constantly challenged and contested.  Caitlin and I prefer to use person first language i.e., person with disability. As already mentioned, Caitlin gets sick of her disability defining her, she wants to be seen as a person first, her disability comes last and doesn’t define her.

Other people we know prefer identity first language, i.e., “Disabled person”. Many people are proud of their disability and want to be known as disabled.  Everyone’s story is different. Some people may like to name medical conditions and impairments, and some may be very uncomfortable with this.  The language a person with disability chooses is their choice and we should respect that. It is always best not to make assumptions and ask or wait to be told what language they prefer.

Also remember language is used differently around the world, same word different meaning. We all remember the word “fanny pack” having a completely different meaning here in Australia compared to overseas!!

So, most importantly, avoid words that are demeaning, or paint people with disability in a bad light. Words like, victim of, suffering from, bound to a wheelchair, physically challenged, handicapped, slow learner, midget, dwarf, special needs, able bodied, deaf and dumb.

Words we recommend, Wheelchair user, person has…., with lived experience of…., person of short stature, intellectual disability, learning disability, deaf person, Aslan user.

I’m a mum and sister of a person with a disability

I’m a mum and sister of a person with a disability, and in my dealing with NDIS and Centrelink, my role becomes known as a Carer, this is different to a paid worker that assists a person with disability who is referred to as a Support worker of Personal Assistant. It is  important to understand the difference, you will no doubt come across both carers and support workers in your workplaces.

Some people may use an accessible toilet or accessible parking, as opposed to a disabled toilet or disabled parking. The large space around the car park and the wider access and fit out of changerooms/toilets makes them more accessible. Once again there is a difference. It does take effort and practice to make these changes to our language if we have always referred to something one way in the past but its worth making the effort.

One important take away is to make sure you keep conversations going. The worst thing that can happen is to be worried about offending someone or worried about saying the wrong thing and therefore avoid talking to a person with a disability and say nothing. People with disability are more often ignored and socially isolated. We all need to change this. If you are approaching the situation positively and with the right intent, most people will not be offended if you make a mistake. If you cannot understand someone, simply ask them to repeat or ask them if there is another way you can communicate.  Be ready to learn and if someone corrects you, acknowledge and be respectful. Remember, no one way works for everyone. The best people to learn more from our people with disabilities.

Ableism and ableism language is everywhere and by being aware, we can start to change.

At the end of the day, we are all just people wanting to be connected, respected and included.  Including and making welcome people with disability into our fitness facilities will only improve their lives. When you increase the diversity in your life and reach out and make friends, work colleagues and professional relationships with those that are different to your usual social network, your life will become more interesting and enriched.

Enable- Everybody deserves the opportunity to exercise!

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1 Comment

  1. I hope that that everybody will not only read, but also retain this very important article for future reference. Thank you Carol for your words and thank you Marietta for bringing the subject to our attention.


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