What Do I Call You?

At a recent book signing, I ended as I often do, by opening it up for time of a Q&A.  One of the audience members asked, “What do I call you?” I knew immediately that she was referring to interacting with people living with disabilities. I always appreciate the opportunity for education and awareness, so I shared with her what I will share with you today. Here are some tips to keep in mind to ensure that your communication is positive and encouraging:

  • Use “people first” language. I am a person living with a disability, not a disabled person. I have friends who cannot see. They are people living with blindness, not blind people. Always focus on the person, and don’t emphasize the illness or injury. We are all people first!
  • Use positive language. Saying that I am wheelchair bound, suffering from paralysis, or a victim of my accident gives it a negative connotation. I don’t know if you’ve realized it, but I absolutely love my life! My wheelchair gives me freedom, I am not suffering, and my accident was one of the best things that has ever happened to me.
  • Certain words, such as retarded, crippled, gimp, etc. are not only archaic but offensive. Remove them from your vocabulary entirely, even in casual or slang verbiage, so that they don’t come out in situations where they would be hurtful and damaging.
  • When in doubt, ask! Some people are not as concerned with verbiage, while to others, it is very important. Certain cultures within the community of people living with a disability are adamant about how they are referred to, and you won’t know that without asking first. I have friends who don’t like words like handicapped or disabled. I have seen people write “disAbility,” in order to emphasize the ability first, or “differently-abled.” I even had someone tell me one time that I was “alternatively-abled,” which made me feel like a life form from another planet. I just told them they could call me Ashlee.
  • Be open to learning and make an effort to change how you speak. For me, I am much more concerned about someone’s actions and attitude towards me, which we will cover next week. If you reach out in friendship and truly want to learn how to interact with someone in a positive manner, you have done your part. If they take offense after your genuine efforts, the fault is with them, not you. After seventeen years, I still remain aware of changing ideas and opinions, and I still mess up when speaking to others! But I don’t give up, and I hope you won’t either.

As always, if you have questions, please contact me at [email protected]

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