The Power of Person-First Language in the Workplace: Why the Words You Use Matter
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Have you ever thought about the words you use to describe disability?
On a recent flight, I watched the documentary film “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” In a clip from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred Rogers meets a 10-year old boy, Jeff Erlanger. The episode airing in 1981, explored Jeff’s world as he demonstrated how his disability required the use of a motorized vehicle.
“What is it that made you need this fancy wheelchair?” asks Mr. Rogers. Without hesitation, Jeff tells his story to Mr. Rogers, who sits at eye level with the boy and listens with rapt attention as he talks. Mr. Rogers, fully in the moment, concentrated on each answer before posing a new question. At the conclusion of the segment, Jeff and Mr. Rogers sing a song together: “It’s you that I like…I like you the way you are…The way you are right now, the way down deep inside you, not the things that hide you, or the things beside you.”
Although this is a story of a young boy, there are direct connections to how we should approach disability in the workplace. Fred Rogers knew what Jeff had to say was important and his actions and language validated that idea. The interaction highlighted something we need to understand and to model as adults. Jeff belonged to the neighborhood, the same as anyone else. It is in the words that he used -- the language of equals -- where Fred Rogers recognizes Jeff’s value.
Mr. Rogers naturally spoke in what is now referred to as “person-first language,” a growing movement that signifies more than just getting the right words in the right order. Language is a powerful method for shaping -- and changing for the better -- the attitudes and culture of our workplaces.
Practice the language of empowerment
The aim of person-first language (also known as “people-first” language) is to empower the person over anything else. Putting the person first means treating a disability as one of numerous personal characteristics rather than one that defines them. For instance, instead of referring to someone as a “disabled person” you could describe them as a person with a disability. Rather than say someone is “mentally ill,” you’d say they have a mental health condition. Instead of referring to a colleague as “wheelchair-bound,” you’d say they use a wheelchair. And a person who has autism is just that -- not “autistic.”
Person-first language also requires that we eliminate language that demeans from our everyday vocabulary -- words and phrases like “crazy,” “retarded,” “spaz,” “handicapped,” “are you deaf?,” and “are you blind?” While this kind of language is often uttered with zero intentional malice, it conveys an implicit bias that can corrode a workplace culture. Chances are that someone within earshot when this kind of language is uttered is, in fact, impacted personally or through loved ones by the disability at the root of the stigmatizing words.
Every employee will perform best in an environment that is safe and engaging, that recognizes the importance of teamwork, and that publicly celebrates achievement through appreciation and gratitude. Every person wants to be recognized for the talent he or she brings to the organization. Using person-first language is the first and most important step toward creating that safe environment for an individual with a disability.
At Galt, a staffing agency for people with a wide range of disabilities, we spend a full day educating new in-house employees about the American with Disabilities Act, various types of disabilities, and etiquette for working with individuals with disabilities. We teach that disability is not always visible and does not discriminate -- it crosses every social, gender, religious and ethnic boundary. And, in fact, most of us will experience a disability in our lifetime.
Here are 10 tips for working with individuals with disabilities. Internalize these and share with your team:
- Don’t worry about being nervous -- just be your usual, respectful self
- Don’t refer to a person’s disability unless it is relevant
- Always ask before attempting to “help” someone with a disability
- Don’t remark that an individual is courageous, special or inspiring based solely on your knowledge of their disability
- Don’t interrupt a person with a speech impediment -- wait for them to fully finish what they’re saying, and then echo the response to make sure you understood it
- Whenever possible, sit at eye level when speaking with a person with a mobility disability who uses a wheelchair
- Identify yourself and use your everyday voice when you approach a person who is blind or has low vision, and also let them know when you leave
- Make eye contact when communicating with a person who is deaf or has hearing loss, even if an interpreter is present
- The greatest expert on preferred language are your co-workers with disabilities. Reach out to your disability employee resource group to ask questions, to learn, and to educate your teams.
- See the person, not the disability.
At the leadership level, be sure to include a neutral question in your recruiting materials that asks if an accommodation is needed for the interview process, and ask this question every time when extending an invitation for additional interviews or meetings. As you consider how a new employee with a disability will thrive in your workplace, think of reasonable accommodations as productivity tools that help all your employees work in a safe and productive environment. Look at the physical design of your workspaces, but don’t stop there. Engage your employees with disabilities in the process -- simply ask the experts!
Let your employees with disabilities know they belong and add value by ensuring that everyone at your company has access to the same information, tools, documents and services that make it a good place to work. Finally, go beyond simply sharing some tips such as those listed above by carving out the time to educate your line managers and work teams about person-first language and etiquette for individuals with disabilities. Let them know that an inclusive workplace that hires and retains employees with disabilities outperforms its competitors and adds to the bottom line.
When Fred Rogers was inducted into the TV Hall of Fame in 1999, guess who surprised him at the podium? Jeff Erlanger. And he immediately interacted with Jeff just as he had many years before, comfortably kneeling beside Jeff’s wheelchair so he could look him in the eye as he described his gratitude for Mr. Roger’s work.