Why Do People On The Same Team Argue Over Semantics?
04/11/2013 - 14:14
Lisa Friedman
Lisa Friedman
Lisa Friedman

I like words. I always have. I take pride in the use of proper grammar. And I know that words matter. I have experienced them used as both tools and weapons.

So I find myself wondering why I rarely see anything that stirs debate more readily than semantics in disability discourse.

I can completely understand why people take issue with ignorance and blatant discrimination. When words are used in a derogatory way, when their intent is to belittle, denigrate or express malice ... I get it and obviously take issue with it, too. 

But I find myself puzzled when people who are supposed to be on the "same team" argue over semantics. If our goal is to increase awareness and foster inclusion, don't we weaken the cause when those who work with, advocate for, love and are themselves individuals with disabilities can't seem to agree? And what’s more frustrating is that we ostensibly agree on the value of inclusion. So why don’t we agree on which words will help advance that cause? Are we somehow undermining ourselves?

There are so many phrases: special needs vs. disabilities; disabled, non-disabled, differently-abled. Inclusion and reverse inclusion. Are some of these terms "better" than others? Should some be used in certain settings but not in others?  Doesn’t there seem to be a need for a standardization of language so we can get on with the business of inclusion?

I have to admit, I’m a little anxious to have everybody weigh in. As I’ve said, I know this issue makes people feel defensive. However, I am also really intrigued by the potential for a dialogue that is both constructive and productive. So, shall we start the conversation?

I've written before about word choice, specifically the use of the word disability vs. the term special needs. Read more  here: http://www.jewishspecialneeds.blogspot.com/2013/01/special-needsdisabilitieswhats.html

Lisa Friedman is the Education Co-Director at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey. She oversees an extensive special needs program within the religious school, with programs designed to help students learn about their Jewish heritage, feel connected to their Jewish community and successfully learn Hebrew. Additionally, Lisa facilitates conversations about inclusion throughout the synagogue as whole and helps the congregation to shape its best practices. Lisa writes a blog about her experiences in Jewish special education: http://jewishspecialneeds.blogspot.com/

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In the corporate world of AT&T, our leadership consistently uses the same language when speaking to the employees about our goals, priorities and challenges. Not only does this reinforce things clearly to employees with no ambiguity but also shows us that our leaders are communicating with each other in a language they all know and understand. Only then do we move the conversation forward to the real issues and not get caught up in the semantic debate.

Word choice matters. I get that it is confusing to others when different groups want different words, or at least a different order. Part of that is neurological disabilities affect people differently than physical disabilities. Especially if the person was born with that particular neurology.

With a physical disability, the brain is not changed. I would be pretty much the same person in a wheelchair as I am out of one. I fully understand why someone who is wheelchair bound would prefer to be seen as a person who uses a wheelchair, rather than a wheelchair user. My experience is with the autistic community. They have grown up autistic, and don't see it as a bad thing. That is, unless they have been raised by people, and/or been around people who treat it as a negative thing. "Love the child, but hate the autism" has very real and sad consequences for the child who grows up with it.

Anyway, those who have been accepted feel that autism defines who they are. They are not "people with autism", they are autistic people.

Lydia Brown says it much better than I can in this article: http://autisticadvocacy.org/identity-first-language/