Accessible language

By Benjamin Rempel

Creating inclusive spaces begins with what we say.

Luke is upset about a recent media interview. “It sucks when someone refers to me as ‘wheelchair-bound.’ I was like, ‘Aww, Shit!’”

He exhales and blinks slowly as if replaying the radio segment over in his mind. He runs a hand across the scruff of his neck, his soft eyes flicking between the two monitors chock full of emails. His normally animated personality is muted. “She used some antiquated language. It was an unfortunate situation— using language we want to move away from.”

Advocating for empowered language

Founded in 2011, StopGap is helping raise awareness about the importance of a barrier-free and inclusive society. The foundation accomplishes this by providing simple and colourful access ramps to storefronts.

But addressing physical barriers is only one of the organization’s priorities. StopGap has long advocated for the use of empowering and inclusive language.

Anderson identifies as a person who uses a wheelchair. To his disappointment, that is not how he was introduced during the radio interview.

“This isn’t a surprise,” Anderson says. “It’s happened in the past.” He references a 2017 television interview in which the host used similar terminology. “It’s just where we’re still at. I’m practising my best approach to steer people away from that.”

Along with the media, the education system can actively play a role in championing empowering and inclusive language and focusing on the person, not the disability.

Words matter

The use of disempowered language can perpetuate inaccurate views of disability. It can shape how we see and relate to others. And it can stigmatize and strengthen archaic and negative stereotypes.

Michael Karapita, professor of journalism in the Faculty of Media and Creative Arts at the Humber College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning, comes across this regularly. “I can’t tell you how many times I hear in the media that someone is ‘confined to a wheelchair,’” he says. “Progress is being made, but instances still exist where more training is needed.”

In response to this need, Karapita has released a Canadian style guide titled Inclusive Language in Media. The goal of the resource, he says, is to assist in “thinking sensitively and contemporaneously about the language we use to communicate stories
of all types of abilities.”

The guide outlines principles for inclusive language, including emphasizing abilities, not equating disability with illness, avoiding labels and putting people into predefined categories, and being clear with terminology to avoid subjective or offensive terms.

What to say

When describing someone with accessibility issues, the first step is determine if their use of a mobility aid is pertinent to the story. Often, the fact that a person presents with a disability is irrelevant. If it is important to communicate how people operate through daily life then descriptors such as “confined,” “bound” and “burdened” should be avoided; these words can be disempowering and may result in feelings of inferiority and exclusion. Similarly, labels such as “handicapped” and “disabled” are offensive and outdated. Instead, phrases such as “uses a wheelchair,” “wheelchair user” or “a person who uses a mobility aid” should be preferred. In all communication, it is important to emphasize the person, not the disability.

Terminology changes regularly. So, it becomes incumbent on us all to research and use empowering and inclusive language. People should continually educate themselves on disability rights while avoiding oppressive and disempowered words. And when you’re unsure what to say? Ask.

“Keep yourself current by regularly asking where people’s thinking is at, what the current terminology is,” Karapita suggests. “Be clear about what you’re talking about. Don’t use overly complicated terms. Thinking is always evolving…people want to define themselves and not be defined by other people.”

It starts in school

Along with the media, the education system can actively play a role in championing empowering and inclusive language and focusing on the person, not the disability. Students need to be exploring fundamental questions such as: What is accessibility? What is the experience of someone with a disability?

Creating space for discussion will lead to a more informed understanding, which then transitions beyond the school years and into the workplace.

“We can remove barriers in our external world through building ramps and addressing the built environment,” says Anderson. “And I also believe there is potential to remove barriers in our inner worlds…by contributing to each other’s well-being. Treating each other with empathy.”

Nearly two weeks after the radio segment, Anderson has still not heard from the producers about the presenter’s use of outdated language. “I feel like there’s a missed opportunity,” he says. “Instead of perpetuating language that we should be moving away from, the media could use its platforms to inform and educate—to use people-centred language.”

The topic changes and a wide smile spreads across his face. He’s moved on, focused now on other things. But before heading towards his office, he pauses. “I’m a person who uses a wheelchair. But I’m a person first,” he says, as if addressing the issue one last time. “And I think that leads to a bigger conversation about how we are human, regardless of how we show up.”

For the rest of the afternoon, Anderson responds to e-mails, holds a teleconference with a community partner and directs final tasks for his annual fundraiser. With an engaged staff and board of directors, he heads a successful, extremely busy charity. He’s been awarded seven community service honours and has been invited to speak in cities across Canada.

Anderson is funny, thoughtful, strategic and impactful. That’s what you see. That might be all you see. And surely that’s the point.

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To learn more about the StopGap Foundation, visit stopgap.ca. To download Inclusive Language in Media: A Canadian Style Guide, visit humber.ca/ makingaccessiblemedia/modules/06/transript/ Final_Glossary.pdf.

Benjamin Rempel holds a master’s of public health and is member-at-large for Health Promotion Ontario. He lives and works in Toronto. He can be contact via linkedin.

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