White House Chief of Staff provides teachable moment for inclusive communications

February 11, 2010

Social media, politics and the language of disabilities collided recently when former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin blasted White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel on her Facebook page over Emanuel’s apparent misuse of the word “retarded.” This episode provided a teachable moment for anyone interested in proper and responsible communication with regard to disabilities.

During the first week of February, Emanuel issued an apology for a remark he made in a closed-door meeting with White House aides and leaders of liberal special interest groups. Upon learning that the liberal groups were planning to run an ad campaign against conservative Democrats who did not support their health care reform agenda, Emanuel called the liberal group, “F---ing retarded.”

The Wall Street Journal reported about this remark, which led Palin to call for Emanuel’s firing. (Her son Trig has Down’s Syndrome.)

Palin’s post on Facebook led to an avalanche of mainstream media coverage of the incident, but perhaps more important, it spotlighted the issue of word choice and the impact it has on communications

More often than not, people who say or do the wrong thing in reference to disabilities do not intend to offend others. Yet, in communications, we learn that words matter because they reflect attitudes.

Disrespectful language can sometimes pose greater barriers for people with disabilities than the other physical, intellectual or emotional challenges that they may face. Poor word choice can lead those with disabilities to feel excluded or ostracized in groups and in the workplace.

While the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has helped break down numerous physical barriers and has helped establish more fair and equitable hiring and management practices across the country, the use of exclusionary language is an obstacle that people with disabilities continue to face.

Both morale and productivity in the workplace can suffer when employees and managers without disabilities have trouble connecting with those who have disabilities.  In addition, the language of exclusion has led to an increasing number of people with disabilities who are filing claims of disability discrimination and harassment.

Chris Kuczynski of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Office of Legal Counsel told the Society of Human Resource Management online in September 2007 that the EEOC receives “more ADA charges each year than charges alleging age discrimination.”

What you can do

With this in mind, here are some basic guidelines that adhere to the people-first philosophy of inclusive communications.

For starters, it’s best to refer to a person’s disability only when it’s relevant to the discussion. When the general discussion turns to accommodations, such as parking spaces, ramps or other measures, the descriptor “accessible” is preferred over “handicapped,” as in “accessible parking spaces.”

When describing people without disabilities, it’s not advisable to call them “normal” or “healthy” — doing so implies that those with disabilities are “abnormal” or “unhealthy.”

Here are some other words to avoid: retarded, slow, special, challenged, crippled, handicapped, mute, infirm, invalid, disturbed, crazy, unstable, lame, midget, victim or sufferer (as in cancer victim), wheelchair-bound, diabetic or epileptic.

The people-first philosophy describes people as individuals and doesn’t identify them by their disability. Here are some examples: wheelchair user; person with epilepsy; person who is visually impaired; person with hearing difficulty or deafness; person with mobility disabilities; and survivor (as in cancer survivor).

Non-verbally, your eyes say a lot to people with disabilities. It is particularly important to make eye contact and not focus on a wheelchair or crutch. When you speak to people with hearing difficulties, make sure to face them when speaking so that they will be able to read your lips and hear you better.

As for protocol, it is important to obtain permission before physically touching a person with a disability even if you are trying to be helpful. Sudden movements or touch can actually cause a person with a disability to be thrown off balance and create other problems.

If you plan a meeting with someone who has a disability, consider locations that provide easy access.

Some controversial court cases involving claims of disability discrimination or harassment have involved people with mental or emotional disabilities. When managing employees who may have a diagnosed mental health condition, don’t assume that “tough love” or a rigid management style will work. Human resource departments and consultants are excellent resources to help establish the most effective accommodations.

Finally,  always remember to be positive and encouraging, but mostly, treat someone with a disability the same way that you would treat anyone else.

Tim O'Brien, APR

Tim O’Brien, APR, owns O’Brien Communications, an independent corporate communications practice in Pittsburgh, and hosts the “Shaping Opinion” podcast. Email: timobrien@timobrienpr.com. Twitter: @OBrienPR.


JD says:

So basically we can't use adjectives anymore?

Feb. 12, 2010

Anne Mangan says:

The political correctness around the language of disability sometimes leans toward the death of common sense. If certain parking spaces must be termed "accessible"...what are the rest of them? Inaccessible?

Feb. 12, 2010

Christopher Florentz says:

As a veteran PR practitioner and father of two special needs sons, I read Tim O'Brien's article with special interest. Tim gets to the heart of the matter regarding the way in which we perceive those with disabilities, and the hurtful stereotypes that we continue to propogate with our words.

Feb. 12, 2010

lpeers says:

Great advice aside, the issue here was not that Emanuel used a distasteful word referring to those with disabilities. Instead, he used that distasteful word to describe an idea, not a person. It's equating the condition with stupidity, and that's what's really wrong here. It's like the unfortunate, adolescent tendency to use "gay" to describe something lame. It's not appropriate to equate the two, and that's where the real offense lies.

Feb. 12, 2010

Tim says:

JD, You don't need to take my word for it. There are plenty of resources available to provide guidance on inclusive communications, not only for people with disabilities, but also in the areas of gender and multiculturalism. I'm not a huge PC advocate solely for the sake of political correctness, but in the area of inclusive language, I stated my case above. The AP Style Guide generally concurs. Along those lines, here is one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite writers: "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug." - Twain

Feb. 12, 2010

Suzanne Fulton says:

The "F" word is just fine though!

Feb. 15, 2010

MikeQ says:

No offense meant Tim, but how people refer to disabled individuals is not the issue here. Unless you are acknowledging that the liberal groups he was referring to are indeed mentally impaired (a.k.a. f-ing retarded), then it should be clear that he was not making a "reference to disabilities," but making an off-handed remark expressing his frustration towards that group. The real ethical issue here is for the media. Is a clearly biased misinterpretation of his statement newsworthy? The original statement obviously wasn't - it didn't get coverage until Sarah Palin commented on it.

Feb. 15, 2010

Tim says:

Very good point, Suzanne.

Feb. 16, 2010

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