Friday, August 11, 2017

Language Matters!

This past week the entire staff of VSA Texas has been busy co-hosting the Kennedy Center's Office of VSA & Accessibility's annual Intersections and Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD) conferences, which we were thrilled to have in Austin this year! I was also personally excited for the opportunity to participate as a panelist in one of the concurrent sessions entitled "If language matters, what should I say?" which centered around the complex and often controversial topic of disability terminology, a topic I have been passionate about for a while. You can take a look at my earlier blog on this topic Call Me Disabled, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Word to read my perspective going into this session.

Marie Clapot and Rebecca McGinnis of the The Metropolitan Museum of Art along with Madison Zalopany of the Whitney Museum of American Art brought this conversation to LEAD this year and invited several artists and advocates from Austin's disability community to participate as speakers including Theron Parker, Gail Dalrymple, Nicole Cortichiato, Renee Lopez, Dolores Gonzalez, and myself. All together, a representative from nearly every contingent of the disability community was present: we had an artist with an invisible disability, a deaf artist, a parent of an adult child with multiple disabilities, several disability advocates, and others.

Sign with arrow directs attendees to the 2017 VSA Intersections and LEAD Conferences
(Photo courtesy of VSA)

The goal of this session was not to be prescriptive but rather engage in meaningful discussions about the language we choose to use around disability, the language we choose to describe ourselves, why we make those decisions, and how those decisions may influence or reflect the way we view or interact with people with disabilities on a broader scale. In no way can I capture the depth nor the full scope of our hour-and-twenty-minute long conversation, but what I can do is share what I personally learned through discussion with other speakers and attendees of the session:

1. While I may fiercely celebrate my identity as a disabled person and proudly use Identity-First Language when I can, calling myself "disabled" may not always be the clearest nor most effective language to use, and it need not enter the majority of my interactions with others. Telling a venue, museum, or other business that I am a "wheelchair user" and need "wheelchair access" cuts straight to the point; meanwhile, my identity is simply that – mine – and it's up to me when, where, and how I choose to share it.

2. Language is fluid. In a given day, I might refer to myself as "disabled and proud," tell someone else I work with "people with disabilities," call a concert venue to ask if they are "wheelchair accessible," and spend an evening with friends and family where my disability isn't mentioned at all because frankly it isn't relevant or essential to everything I do. Eliminating all linguistic options for the sake of one isn't necessary, and it completely misses the point.

3. No one language fits all. The disability experience and the personal journey inherent in that experience exists on a vast spectrum and constantly fluctuates depending on our energy level, the kind of day we're having, or recent changes in our disability. While disability pride may be the ultimate goal, you can't force that on someone who isn't there yet or rush them through their own extremely personal journey. Respect them by using the language they prefer and move on.

4. Start with accommodations. Several people in the session discussed their difficulty assessing a client's disability without asking prying questions. One of the attendees suggested asking, "How may I assist you?" This seemed to be an optimal solution: start with offering assistance or asking if an accommodation is necessary; if one is needed, provide it. The reality is everyone needs an accommodation at some point, and it's not our place to ask why or demand a suitable reason.

5. Avoid euphemisms when possible. For many people with disabilities, euphemisms like "differently-able," "special needs," "physically-challenged," etc. sugarcoat something that doesn't need to be sugarcoated. We are comfortable with who we are, and we have adapted to our unique life experience. The word "disability" is not negative or painful for us to hear; in fact, it's the opposite: a source of pride, a badge of honor, a community we know and love.

6. At some point, the language you use will offend someone. It's inevitable, I'm afraid. Considering the multitude of people with disabilities, the countless different disabilities there are, and the myriad perspectives people have about the disability experience, it is simply impossible to always say the exact right thing. However, if you see a person as a person first, recognize that disability is a normal and natural part of life, not to be feared or pitied but embraced, and make strides to be as inclusive and accessible as possible, you are far less likely to offend someone. If, after all best intentions and care, you do offend somebody, acknowledge there are things you have yet to learn, apologize, and make a conscious effort to avoid repeating that mistake.

These six lessons are not exhaustive, but I hope they may prove a helpful guide to navigating the often uncertain waters of disability terminology. Please let me know if you have any other suggestions. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!

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