The power of words | Bolt Burdon Kemp The power of words | Bolt Burdon Kemp

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The power of words

I was part of a discussion recently about language; specifically, the language used to describe members of the spinal cord injury community. Over the years language has changed a lot and terms that were once commonly used are, often quite rightly, no longer acceptable.

Take the term ‘wheelchair bound’ as an example. A term that is still used often without much thought. But take a moment to think about the words; ‘wheelchair bound’. As in you are ‘bound’ to your wheelchair. Run the word ‘bound’ through a thesaurus and you get alternatives such as ‘constrained’, ‘enslaved’, ‘restrained’ even ‘doomed’! Wheelchair bound has negative connotations. It implies that being in a wheelchair is a negative thing. But for many people with spinal cord injury or other disability, their wheelchair is a positive thing and represents access and freedom. They are a wheelchair user and they use their wheelchair to go about their day to day lives.

As I write this, I can hear in the background murmurings from some parts of society: ‘does it really matter?’; ‘it’s not meant that way’; ‘people shouldn’t be so sensitive’. Well, sorry (not sorry) it does matter. It matters a lot. Because language is powerful and using the correct language when discussing disability is a way of showing the world that you respect the disabled community and it helps promote equality. Using the correct language demonstrates empathy and equality.  If people persist in using outdated language, then they are, albeit inadvertently, persisting in supporting outdated and negative stereotypes.

Again, as I write this I can hear in the background more murmurings: ‘I can’t keep up with it all’; ‘how am I supposed to know what’s right’. I fully accept that it isn’t always easy. But did you know there is a whole section on the website dedicated to inclusive language? Now, as the website is quick to point out these are guidelines and not everyone will agree on everything, and they certainly aren’t the only guidelines out there, but they are a helpful starting point. In particular they include a list of words to avoid (some of which really do feel antiquated and its almost amazing they have to feature on such a list) and which to use instead.

So, remember, words are powerful and when you are choosing which words to use, think carefully and do a little research if necessary. You may not always get it right; I know that I haven’t in the past; but if we all give it more thought; if we all try a little harder; then we may just make the world a slightly better place.

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