Think before you speak

A lack of tact by some professionals has a huge effect on the
dignity of disabled people, says Clare Evans Well, how would you
like to be described? “Needing assistance to eat” or a “feeder”?
The lack of sensitivity by professionals in the ways they describe
aspects of their work with disabled people like me not only affects
our dignity but also how we feel about ourselves. The effect on our
self-esteem is a big barrier to the empowerment of many disabled
people caught in the care system and yet seldom is it picked up and
checked by managers as inappropriate language.

For several years, I have needed assistance to transfer from my
wheelchair to the toilet seat. Yet it had seemed just another way I
had to accept assistance daily without it affecting how I felt
about myself as a person. That was until, in my hearing, a care
worker spoke to my staff as having come “to toilet” me, despite it
being only one of several tasks she helped me with in my lunch hour
at my work place.

It is difficult to feel and act like a senior manager when you and
your colleagues hear you being referred to in such a passive way.
Is it surprising that the only way many of us can break from the
care culture and live independent lives in the community is by
employing directly our own personal assistants?

Social planners and policy makers too use social care jargon
carelessly even when consulting users collectively. So we had to
point out it was insulting to describe users “at the heavy end”
when they had higher support needs than others. It is encouraging
at least that older people in hospital being failed by the social
care system are no longer referred to routinely as “bed blockers”
but as examples of “delayed discharge”.

Language defines the way we think so it can affect our attitudes
collectively. In general, society has moved beyond offensive
language such as “cripple” and “spastic” but there is a tendency
for the language of the tragedy model to creep into common usage –
so “wheelchair user” becomes “wheelchair-bound” and we “suffer
bravely” as “the victim” of our impairments.

So often attitudes of low expectations of disabled people are
scarcely hidden when we, or rather our supporters, are spoken to –
so, for example, “does he/she take sugar?” is a common occurrence.
Questions addressed only to our supporters are frequent even when
we shop using our own credit cards! My husband’s usual reply, “why
don’t you ask her?” causes confusion.

As we enter 2003, the European Year of Disabled People, can we all
be sensitive to the use of appropriate language and use terms by
which we ourselves collectively as disabled people like to be
described? We are people united by our own common experience of
discrimination and oppression but have various impairments –
physical, sensory, hearing and visual impairments, learning
difficulties or are users of the mental health service.

Clare Evans is a disabled person in Wiltshire, active in
the local organisation of disabled people and works full-time as a
manager of a national project.

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