Let's Discuss Our Language

June 5, 2024

Language and identity can tend to be touchy subjects. How do we describe ourselves? How do we describe others? Do we take pride in who we are? Do we embrace who others are, even if they’re different?

Sometimes, even what we’ve been taught as a “best practice” is not what feels correct to an individual’s preference. Language is ever evolving, and so is our understanding surrounding autism, disability, and neurodiversity.

Since how we describe ourselves and others is so inherently personal and not at all black and white, we at Positive Development decided to embrace the gray. After an incredibly thought-provoking ICDL training we had the privilege of attending this past January, we took the opportunity to continue the discussion internally at a recent Lunch and Learn presented by Haley Moss.

What we found from our team was thought-provoking, insightful, and led to some transparent, meaningful dialogue that we are thrilled to share with you – and invite you to join in on in the comments!

Why are we so adamant on discussing language?

Language is a cultural and evolving tool, and starting with it is an important first step in unlearning and recognizing ableism. A society that can be filled with both inadvertent and purposeful ableism is in no way easy to navigate. An important part of that navigation is understanding when to call in or call out.

Civil rights activist Loretta J. Ross noted the difference:

  • Calling out assumes the worst [intentions].
  • Calling in involves conversation, compassion, and context.  

What does that mean?

  • Calling someone out might be appropriate if:
  • You want them to stop the behavior immediately.
  • They are actively hurting an individual or a group of people.
  • The person is a public figure.

Calling someone in might be more private and empathetic.

  • When deciding whether to call out or call in:
  • Consider your relationship with the person.
  • Ask yourself if this is an honest mistake or a teachable moment.
  • What is the other person’s intention? Do they want to cause harm?

So what are these types of language?

In a fair amount of terminology debates, the correct answer is often that no one answer is correct since it ultimately boils down to respecting and affirming individual preferences. Let’s dive into the gray.

Person first language puts the person before the disability or condition. Examples: blindness, deafness, has autism, person with autism, has a disability, etc.

Identity first language is when the disability or condition is described as part of the person. Examples: blind, deaf, autistic, neurodiverse/neurodivergent, disabled, etc.

Euphemisms are phrases or words used to describe overall disabilities or conditions without calling them by their name. Examples: special abilities, special needs, differently abled, etc. Overall, these are not recommended, except of course, when the person uses them to refer to his or herself.

Bottom line: Some people who identify as neurodivergent may not perceive themselves as disabled (by either their condition or society), although under the legal definition of disability, they are disabled. Others may identify with both terms, neither, or a mixture of the above, while also taking into consideration the context and situation.

So what can you do? Take stock of the things that make you, you! Do you describe these things as separate from you or as part of your identity? Ultimately, it’s not up to us to decide how someone else should be addressed. Autistic communities have unique cultures, which need to be respected and treated like anybody else.

Reimagining labels

High Functioning vs. Low Functioning and High Support vs. Low Support

The problem with using these labels is the need to ask yourself, what actually defines them? Saying high functioning denies some people the support they need, while low functioning dismisses the competence and potential of others.  

What else can we use? Discuss the specific areas a person might be struggling in as opposed to labeling those challenges as high or low or in between. You've may be familiar with the Stephen Shore quote, “If you’ve met one person with autism, then you’ve met one person with autism.” Less labeling and more listening would go a long way.

Nonverbal vs. nonspeaking

The problem here is that frankly they aren’t entirely accurate. Just because words aren’t being used doesn’t mean a person isn’t being verbal or speaking. For example, we all use sounds instead of words to express joy, sadness, frustration, etc. In addition, a person who typically has no issue using verbal words, might be unable to during a meltdown or shutdown.

There aren’t easy answers here. But whether we’re neurodivergent or neurotypical, the key is to keep listening, discussing, and respecting each other as we continue to evolve. Embrace the gray!

Interested to learn more?

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