Tag Archives: Language

“So, did you walk into town? Oh! I meant ‘wheel into town’ – well, you know what I mean…”

Guest post from Zoe Lloyd, a disability awareness trainer with Enhance the UK.

Disability awareness trainer Zoe LloydWell, this is awkward. As a wheelchair user, I have been in this kind of situation many times. Personally I don’t find it awkward,
but I’m pretty sure the person who says it wants the ground to swallow them up.

When trying to talk to a disabled person, lots of people feel hyper-aware about the words they are using, and worry about saying the wrong thing.

It really doesn’t have to be this way – most disabled people I know don’t have a massive chip on their shoulder about language and terminology and can laugh about things. (Obviously offensive language and derogatory remarks are another matter).

I’ve also experienced the ‘does she take sugar?’ scenario. I had been going to the same hairdresser for years. But when I became a wheelchair user, suddenly one of the workers couldn’t look at me and had to ask my mum how I liked my tea!

To think she had known me before, yet the fact I was sitting in a wheelchair made her act differently towards me, was quite hard to understand.

No wonder, then, that some strangers in the street find it hard to meet your eyes.

I am a trainer for Enhance the UK, a charity which – among other things – delivers disability awareness training to schools and workplaces.  All of our trainers are disabled, and we are successful, fun, positive people.   We make our training fun and interactive – and as honest as possible. We can give candid answers from our own personal experience and help people challenge their fears, concerns and awkwardness around disability.

Most fear is a product of ignorance, and we hope our training helps people to look past their colleagues/pupils/clients’ disability and see them for who they are as a person.

Honest, open communication with disabled colleagues is far better than making assumptions. That way we can get over any awkwardness within minutes, rather than worry about it for months.

And stumbling over those everyday phrases usually makes things more awkward rather than less. For example, people have said to us that they’ve felt bad after saying things like ‘Do you see what I mean?’ to a blind person.

Maybe over time, you might end up avoiding such phrases automatically with your blind colleague – but if you forget, it’s fine!

The greater inclusion of disabled people on TV over the past few years has helped show people that disability isn’t something to be scared of. Channel 4’s The Last Leg is a perfect example. Barriers are being broken down, and long may that continue.

Now, I’m just going to take my dog for a wheel – sorry, a walk.

Help, harm or be heard? The power of language

The game changers

Joe BrewerJoe Brewer is Founder of Cognitive Policy Works and lead researcher at DarwinSF 

Have you ever wondered about the importance of language? Noticed the way that people think and talk about an issue is somehow “out of touch” with what is true and real? Aspired to see a shift in the way political and social issues are understood?

Then you are in good company.

I have specialized in the study of cognitive linguistics and its many applications in politics for nearly a decade. During this time I have observed that the words we use (or don’t use!) come to shape how we understand the world. If you want people to dislike the government, call for “tax cuts” that imply taxation to be an unfair burden on the public. And if you want people to care about the common good, talk about “civic duty” and the benefits of living in a supportive community.

One way to analyze the power of words is through discourse analysis. A discourse is all of the ways people think and talk about a particular topic. You can, as two examples, have a discourse on education or a discourse on climate change. There will be some people who are influential on a topic and whose opinions shape their followers. And there will be official media channels from trusted sources that define the “correct” names for topics. This is true for anything that is widely talked about.

The composition of a discourse can be helpful or harmful to different people. For example, when I assisted in a major research study on poverty and the development discourse (published as the Finding Frames report a few years ago), it became clear that organizations working to bring poverty to an end were unknowingly complicit in the rise of wealth inequality throughout the Global South. They were hurting those whom they aspired to help!

This happened because most development NGO’s think and talk about themselves using the language of “charity” and “aid” – both of which reinforce the notion that privileged, wealthy Westerners are the powerful actors and that the poor (often dark skinned and female) Southerners are passive victims of their impoverished plight. By framing the discourse in this manner, they were unwittingly contributing to the power structures that create poverty. I have since begun working with a new anti-poverty organization called The Rules that is applying these insights to transform the global discourse on development and poverty and remedy this situation.

A new study of the language around disability shows the same problematic use of language. “The disabled” are separated out into an exclusive category of society. The language about them reinforces notions of superiority among “normal” people and steals away the vocal power of disabled persons by always placing them in a passive role. The good people at Scope share some of the findings from this study and encourage healthy conversations about what can be done about it.

I offer up this brief post to suggest that discourse is a vitally important topic of study. The words we use have power to shape reality. And so we must incorporate the best research tools available for revealing the strategic implications of language use. To do so is to shine a beacon of light on our own inner worlds. Failure to do so is to wander around in the dark, unaware even when we make massive strategic blunders.

I hope this short commentary offers insight and empowerment to all who seek to alter social discourse and reframe the debate in a way that empowers the marginalized and restores social justice in society.

What is Britain saying about disability?