We’ve all heard the phrase “think before you speak” but it seems we aren’t getting the message when it comes to addressing or referring to people with disabilities.
Recent research by Developing Australian Communities (DAC) shows a third of respondents to a national survey still use offensive terms when describing a person with a disability.
In fact, one-in-three of us admit to not being confident enough to speak to someone with a disability - we become tongue-tied and just don’t know what to say.
More worrying is, the study found that 50% of us have used offensive term or rude words to describe someone living with a disability.
It showed 46% of Queenslanders still believe discrimination is the biggest challenge facing the disability sector and proves we still have a long way to go.
While Aussies are not necessarily intentionally rude or offensive when speaking to people with disabilities, DAC co-founder River Night says that same research showed 18% of the survey respondents feel completely lost when trying to talk to people about disabilities.
Mr. Night, who has had almost 20 years of experience in the disability sector, says we need to think about the language we use so people with disabilities do not feel excluded.
But it isn’t just about name-calling, or treating adults with disabilities like children, it can also be using condescending language too.
Many people with disabilities report support workers or members of the public referring to them as “poor thing” or even not speaking or even making eye contact with participants, but rather addressing their carers or support workers.
Mr. Night tells the story of the time he went to a shopping centre with a friend who was in a wheelchair and a woman started engaging River in conversation about his friend, rather than addressing the friend himself.
“This lovely lady told me I was beautiful, a good friend taking my friend to lunch and completely ignored him,” he says.
“She asked ‘can he talk’ so I said to him ‘I don’t know, can you talk?’
“He replied ‘nah, I can’t talk - tell her I can’t talk’ and she was confused then my friend said ‘and why are you saying he’s beautiful?’
“And she started laughing and talking to my friend and I stood back a bit and just listened to the natural flow of the conversation after that.”
Which just goes to show, when it comes to talking to people with a disability we tend to become tongue-tied and often find ourselves saying the wrong thing or even being unintentionally offensive or just saying nothing because we don’t know what is politically correct.
“It doesn’t matter where you are in Australia, there’s at least half of our community over 65 living with a disability - that’s 15% of the world’s population,” Mr. Night says.
“That’s why the #WeThe15 movement that came around the time of the Paralympics was so powerful in the community - raising awareness of seeing the disabled population as part of the community.”
He says we, as a nation, don’t generally like to talk about aging or disabilities but the Paralympics was an opportunity to show the world the athletes were not just incredible but “just people” too.
“There are people with disabilities out there with jobs, paying taxes who are just people,” Mr Night says.
“Look at the person first - a person who uses a wheelchair, not someone who is wheelchair-bound.”
He said some people in the disability sector prefer different ways to refer to themselves - someone like to be referred to as autistic, where another person might prefer to be a person with autism.
“It depends on the individual - just ask,” Mr. Night says.
“We need to look at our language.”
He says the survey results also revealed education and the inclusive school system of today seem to be making the younger generation more accepting and inclusive of people with disabilities.
“Younger respondents seem more comfortable talking to people with disabilities than older generations,” River says.
“Language reflects how we value or devalue someone or how we see the world we live in.
“We need to change the way we value people and that means changing the language we use to address them. It all comes down to experience and confidence.