Why inclusive language matters

This week is National Inclusion Week, so today’s post is all about inclusive language.

It is time for parents to teach young people early on, that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength – Maya Angelou

I cannot talk on behalf of those with disabilities, so I won’t try to. What I can talk about is the way certain language has made me feel since we found out that Aidan would have Down’s Syndrome.

When we first heard about his diagnosis, one of the things my husband and I worried about was how Aidan would be perceived by the world. Truth be told, I still worry about it. I remember being so nervous about attending my first baby class with Aidan. I didn’t want people to stare at him, wondering if he was different. I didn’t want them to sit awkwardly, skirting around the obvious. I wanted people to ask about him so they could learn. I wanted people to include him.

The day we found out he would have Down’s syndrome, as we drove home in tears from the hospital, we talked about how worried we were about what people might call him. Would he hear cruel words? Words we knew as insults. Things you call someone you might not like. Someone who might have irritated you. Someone who might not have conformed to your expectations. Negative things. Since Aidan has been born, countless people have called him a “Down’s baby”. To me, he is not a Down’s baby. He is my baby. My beautiful baby, who has almond shaped eyes with little flecks in them. My wonderful son, who smiles whenever he looks at me. My strong boy who has humbled me with his fighting spirit. He is a little boy, who happens to have Down’s Syndrome. It isn’t what defines him.

There are two main issues here. The use of ableist language and not using people first language.

Ableist Language

You’ve probably used ableist language. I know I have. You probably didn’t mean to cause offense. I didn’t. Ableist language is the use of words associated with a disability within a negative context. Words like retard, mong, lame and dumb. These words are bandied around so freely, that it has been an accepted norm. But when you think about the etymology of these words, and the context for which they are used, they become unacceptable.

The thing is with ableist language, whether you mean to or not, you are offending and devaluing another human life. It may seem harmless, but it perpetuates stereotypes about disability which marginalises and sidelines some of the most vulnerable in our society. The R word equates my baby boy with a person who is unintelligible, irritating, inadequate, someone you probably don’t like or respect very much. When it is so easy to replace these words with others that do not cause offence, should we not make more of an effort to do so?

People first language

People first language is important because it puts the person before the disability. First and foremost, Aidan is a baby boy. He sleeps; he drinks milk; he cries when he has wind; he smiles when he’s happy; he coos when I talk to him; he likes being cuddled; he looks more like his brother than he looks like another baby with Down’s Syndrome. It is not fair to define him by his condition, in just the same way as it is not fair to define someone by their gender, race or sexuality. When someone calls him a “Down’s baby”, I cringe inside. It makes me feel like they can only see his condition and not him. It is so simple to flip the words – He is Aidan, who happens to have Down’s Syndrome.

Inclusion is for everyone

Inclusion, and the use of inclusive language, is not just an issue which impacts those living with disability. Five years ago, my brother came out as gay. Here, he speaks about what inclusion and inclusive language means to him;

Inclusion is a fundamental right that all people deserve. I think of inclusion as meaning many different things; from making places accessible with ramps, to using the correct language.

Within in the world of LGBT+, there are many different ways in which a person could be made to feel excluded; especially the lack of correct language or use of negative language. Starting from a young age, children are presented with the “white picket fence” ideal. This sets a precedent that if your life doesn’t look like the standard nuclear family, you are excluded from the world around you.

Programs being introduced in primary education, like “No Outsiders”, are brilliant initiatives which set out a path to becoming a more inclusive society. “No Outsiders” is a series of books which introduce same sex relationships and transgender people, and is done in such a way that children can see this is part of life. They tell stories just like any other children’s books, which depict opposite sex relationships or cisgender people. By presenting different types of families in this way, children can learn that people are just people, regardless of where they come from. It normalises same sex relationships and transgender people, which previously would have been perceived as “abnormal”.

Creating an inclusive environment will only serve to strengthen our world. Phrases like “I’m not homophobic, but…” need to be rejected by society. The use of “but” implies you are judging others. We have come a long way, but there is still a long way to go.

By creating small changes in the way we speak, by representing and showing our communities, we can create a society where we have no outsiders. One where no one is left behind.


Flip the Script – When is okay to say the R word?

Down’s Syndrome Association Terminology Guide

Equalities Primary (No Outsiders)

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