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Words matter

Originally published April 29 2021 -

When we reduce people to a subset of their condition, we dehumanize them.

For example, we call some people “homeless,” “poor,” “disabled” or “drug users.” However, that is only one aspect of their lives.

First, they are human beings. People who may be parents, children, friends and neighbours.

This concept of “person-first language” emerged among disability advocacy groups in the 1980s. The objective was to use language in a way that allowed people with disabilities or diagnoses to reclaim their agency, autonomy and personhood in the face of stigma and dehumanization.

When we put the word “person” before the disability or condition, we emphasize their humanity and make their diagnoses or disabilities ancillary to who they were.

This is different from putting the adjective before the noun, for example “a disabled person,” which implies that the whole person is disabled. That is why “a person with disabilities” is a preferred term.

Our aim should be to shift focus from people to the systems that create inequities. That is when we can change the conversation to address systemic inequities.

The deficit or absence of equity is systemic.

It gained its foothold through one race or group of people, trying to establish superiority over another. It is a by-product of racism that has been normalized into our systems and thinking over time.

In her paper titled “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, Peggy McIntosh says, “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.”

Reread that sentence, replacing racism with words like ageism, gender-inequality, sexism or even physical disabilities, to better understand the reality that many people live.

In our province, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, or AODA, aims to identify, remove and prevent barriers for people with disabilities.

The AODA states: “When we think of disabilities, we tend to think of people in wheelchairs and physical disabilities — disabilities that are visible and apparent. But disabilities can also be non-visible. We can’t always tell who has a disability. The broad range of disabilities also includes vision disabilities, deafness or being hard of hearing, intellectual or developmental, learning, and mental health disabilities.”

To truly achieve equity, we must work at a systemic level by providing support to help those facing barriers or removing those barriers altogether.

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