In today’s world, it’s both what you say and how you say it
By Tom Fjerstad/Editor
Since October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, I would like you to imagine that you’re in a job interview for a position that you’ve always wanted. Everything is going surprisingly well and then the interviewer says, “Wow, this is really exciting! You know, we’ve never hired someone who’s crippled before.”
What would you do? What would you say? Would you turn green and start foaming at the mouth? Would you seize the moment and turn it into an educational opportunity, or would you simply turn around and roll out of the room?
You’ve heard all the clichés: “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it,” “Words matter,” or my all-time least favorite, “That’s not politically correct.”
Politically correct itself is a bit of an oxymoron, as there aren’t too many people today who find much that’s correct about anything political. But what is correct in today’s world? Every time I turn around, it seems to change.
About two years ago, I wrote an editorial addressing parking issues (Handicapped Parking, September 2017) and made the mistake of referring to it as “handicapped parking.” The hate mail rolled in
“OMG you should know it’s ‘disabled parking,’ ” etc. Here I am today, and I came across a group that insists “disabled parking” is offensive and should be referred to as “accessible parking.”
In Ireland, The National Disability Authority (NDA) is an independent statutory body that provides information and advice to the Irish government on policy and practice relevant to the lives of persons with disabilities. The NDA has its own take on what is politically correct and has dedicated a page on its website to “Appropriate Terms to Use.”
The page offers multiple examples of a “Term No Longer Used” followed by the “Term Now Used.” The first term listed that is no longer used is “the disabled.” The term the list says to use now is “people with disabilities” or “disabled people.”
So, working with those guidelines, you could say “disabled people,” but I would guess “disabled parking” would be out? I think the parking spaces need to get over it; they’re obviously being overly sensitive.
Another no-longer-used term the NDA lists is “normal.” The term it says is now used is “non-disabled.” So, if “normal” is now “non-disabled” does that mean that I’m not normal? I’ve always thought of myself as a pretty normal guy. Or should I be thinking of myself as a “person with a disability?”
I’m obviously having a little fun with what many people consider a very sensitive topic. I totally agree that some of the terms used in the past when referencing people with disabilities simply had to be changed.
But more than the words, I believe it was the underlying attitudes of some people about this segment of the population that perpetuated the use of the words. Just changing the terminology may have helped in changing the perception for some. But for me personally, I become far more agitated with a patronizing attitude than I do with someone who uses a poor choice in words but has no obvious malevolent intentions.
In today’s world of over-analyzing of one’s words, it can be counted upon that anything you say will be scrutinized six ways to Sunday by someone in an attempt to turn it into exactly the opposite of your actual intentions. Right or wrong, words do matter.
In today’s world, it’s both what you say AND how you say it. As much as some of us may despise it, the watchdogs of political correctness are watching and listening.
It’s a good idea to think before you speak (or write, in this case) or you could run the chance of sticking that size 10 loafer right in your mouth.