‘Sticks and stones will break my bones AND words can really hurt me’ – the important of language in inclusion 

Over my many years as an autism advocate I have met many people who complain about ‘political correctness.’ This article is my response to this. 

A few years ago I was asked to give a talk by a non-autistic, parent-led group. I knew some of the autistic parents in the town my presentation was in and had been doing work with them for some time. The organiser of the event warned me about ‘some hard-line activists’ which I worked out meant my autistics parent friends. At the talk, the ‘Dorothy Dixer’ (i.e. ‘easy’) question to me, aiming to put me at ease was from this event organiser. They asked me ‘how do we manage all these politically correct extremists?’ Not so much a ‘Dixer’ question but I answered it anyway. I said that ‘political correctness’ tends to be an insulting way to describe inclusiveness and wanting to be respectful of people from groups that face disadvantage in society. As such I didn’t want to do anything to ‘address political correctness’ and said it was a good thing to have. Not sure what the event organiser felt about that! It did highlight some of the issues so I’m glad they asked it of me.

This is a post about the meaning behind words and how they can drive respect and understanding or conversely fuel the fires of bigotry. It is a post on some ways to demonstrate respect and care. 

One of the key areas around language and autism relates to identity. Autistic people describe ourselves in a number of different ways, such as ‘I am autistic’, I am an Aspie’, ‘I have autism’ or ‘I am Autistic’. My understanding of identity is that the way a person chooses to identify or describe themselves is their identity. It can’t really be ‘wrong.’ The issue often comes when others impose their views on how someone ‘should’ identify themselves. My own experience is a case in point. I describe myself as ‘I am autistic’ or ‘I am Autistic’ on occasion too. This form of autistic identity is known as ‘identity-first. It is echoed in other communities such as the Deaf community. It comes from a view that autism is an integral part of who I am. I am inseparable from my autism. If you ’cured’ it I would cease to be me. It also comes from the idea that I am proud to be my autistic ‘me’.  Many health and disability workers have been taught to use ’person first’ language (ie ‘I have autism’). They are often told that person-first is ‘correct’ and identity-first is somehow putting people down. I cannot count the number of times some well-meaning health worker has explained to me that I should say ‘I have autism’ because I am doing myself a disservice being identifying as ‘Autistic’. Yes, I have no words in response either. Correcting someone on how they define themselves is very unhelpful, even if done with good intentions. My rule of thumb for identity is that however a person chooses to identify is their identity, no matter what anyone else thinks. It is, after all, their ’them.’

Some words are tricky because they are used and understood differently by different people. I was recently on a radio show alongside another person with disability and they thought the term ‘Disabled person’ was offensive whereas I have a different view. Some people – including me – view disability through the social model rather than the medical model. The social model of disability essentially states that people are disabled mostly through social context rather than us being somehow ‘broken’. If everyone in the world bar one person was a wheelchair user, that one person would probably be quite disabled in their experience of things. They would have to crouch down to get around buildings and the world would not be accessible for them. As I view disability this way, I often use the term ’Disabled people’ (note the upper case ‘D’), as a way of talking ownership of the word and reflecting that idea of the social model which implies that idea of Disabled experience, rights and culture.

A lot of the language around disability is problematic but not everyone knows that. There is someone in my life who needs to remain in my life but who I won’t name who seems to have little or no understanding of this issue. This person is confused when I pull them up for using the ‘R’ word – one of – if not the – most offensive thing you can say to describe a Disabled person. They have no concept that this isn’t me being ‘difficult’ but that they are saying something highly offensive to a lot of people, not just me. If someone expresses distress in relation to a word or phrase it is usually best to take that on board. Apologising is a good step followed by not using the word or phrase again. Even if it doesn’t seem upsetting and offensive to you it may well be for others. Once again it isn’t about somehow censoring your words, just being respectful to others’ needs. People may have a history of abuse and bullying by people using those sorts of words. I know I have, so when someone says it I am right back at school being hated by pretty much everyone. I find it helps to think of it like a horrible racist slur and just not say it.

I imagine to the uninitiated all this might be a bit challenging to get across but it is actually very important. That old saying ’sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me’ is actually a long way off reality. Words and how we describe ourselves – and are described by others – form a huge part of our understanding of identity and difference. Rather than thinking of this as onerous, see it as a means of demonstrating respect and care for others. If you want positive relationships with people from diverse groups then showing respect in how you speak and the ability to politely and sensitively ask if you don’t understand is going to make that happen a lot more easily. Words really do drive meaning and understanding. I could write  a much longer post on this, particularly around identity, but I shall leave it at this. 

same but different-2  

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