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Inclusion vs. Rhetoric

  • Posted on March 5, 2011 at 12:43 AM

Previously, I have published to short synopses—in blog post style—of chapters for the non-fiction book I’m working on, Neurodiversity at Work: A Manager’s Guide.  First, I wrote a post introducing the neurodiverse workforce, and then I addressed the need to cope with the challenges of inclusion, and the possibility to capitalize on a diverse workforce.  Here I will explore the rhetoric of business in contrast with the language of inclusion.

The Rhetoric of Business

One of the hallmark linguistic requirements of the contemporary business environment is the use of politically correct language.  The emphasis on an externally set linguistic standard betrays a vital fact that most seem quite unaware of, namely that respect is not dictated from the outside in.

Personally, I find that if you genuinely respect people, then respectful language will naturally flow through your use.  If, on the other hand, you are inclined to devalue people, then an externally enforced linguistic standard only seeks to cover up that disrespect.  While the purpose of politically correct language is to express tolerance, the reality is that an externally enforced standard does not breed tolerance, merely compliance.

By following the strictures of politically correct speech and further by attempting to enforce a distant, façade of respect through public and employee relations programs, business cultures convince themselves they practice tolerance.  And yet the problems of internalized prejudice continue.  In gender, race, and disability relations, equality is not attained despite our legislation and the enforcement of politically correct language.  The language used in businesses becomes empty rhetoric that is not played out in the culture of the business or in the everyday choices where prejudice holds its greatest power.

The Language of Inclusion

The language we choose to use can influence the way we think about the world and the way we perceive each other.  Choice is a significant factor, however.  Underlying the choices we make is the respects we hold.  I often refer to my children as children with autism, autistic children, autistic or even, though I try not to, Silly Willy.  According to political correctness, this is wrong; yet my regard for my children does not change.  Recently, Dave Hingsburger of Rolling Around in My Head wrote a post about the language we use.  There are some words and phrases that are truly offensive.  However, most terms can be used with respect.  Disability is not an ugly word, nor is it an ugly state of being.  It is only ugly when we have no respect for those who are disabled.

The language of inclusion is less about the words we choose and more about what we mean when they use them.  If you think an autistic person is worthless, it does not matter that you use people-first language.  You can call autistics “people with autism” all you like, but if “autism” means “inferior” to you, then everything else you say and do is going to communicate your prejudice loudly and clearly no matter how politically correct you are.

The Transition

The language of inclusion is not about political correctness or the façade of tolerance.  It’s about genuine respect.  You can’t fake it.  But you can shape it by making new choices for new reasons.  It can be shaped within a culture by people who use words with respect.  In order to make this transition, you need to incorporate respect into the culture of your business.  It’s not just about the words you use, but the ideas and beliefs you express.  This respect must come from a force within that organization, and it must be disseminated throughout the organization.  Respect diverse workers.  Respect diverse partners, suppliers, and customers.  Respect the diverse world we live in.  Inclusive language will naturally follow.

Impacting Language

  • Posted on May 30, 2010 at 10:27 PM

As a writer by trade, language is frequently on my mind.  Usually, though, I think about ways that we might change the language in common use.  Then, there are those bright moments when I see that the change is already occurring.

Saturday evening I attended my nephew’s high school graduation party.  I’m certainly proud of his accomplishment and the decisions he’s making to help shape his future.  But as he sat around with his friends, I observed another reason to be proud of him.  Generally speaking, I appreciate the wonderful people these children are as I’ve seen them interact with their cousins, my children (okay, two of them are now grown children!).  I can’t say how much coaching it might have taken, but they’ve always accepted their cousins for who they are—limits, challenges and all.  I appreciate that and am very proud of them for it.  But today it was a little thing that caught my attention.

This nephew sat around the table with his friends.  Ben ran around squealing with excitement over the new areas to explore.  The friends talked on, until one of them swore in an off-hand kind of way.  My nephew, conscious of his little cousin, said, “Watch the language!”  A moment later, another friend made a comment about drug-use.  “Watch the content,” my nephew exclaimed in theatrical exasperation.

It seems like a little thing, and maybe it is, but it says something wonderful about his character and his choice of friends that he felt comfortable to make his point.  I also appreciated his manner and approach in doing so.  A gentle reminder—performed well and complied with.  The issue was important to him, but he didn’t need to make a big deal of it to get his point across.

More recently, I was putting in some time freshening up on my grant writing studies.  A small subsection, on style and usage, made a quick, short comment about “political correctness.”  In a few short paragraphs, with a similar important-but-not-a-big-deal approach, the authors gave a lesson on respecting people with regard to race, gender and ability.  The reason it struck me is because their manner wasn’t one of qualification—this is the language you’re expected to use—but instead carried a subtle but discernible undertone of respect.  They didn’t say this just because it had to be said; they mean it.  I especially like this part:  “Don’t sensationalize with phrases such as ‘afflicted with,’ ‘suffering from,’ or ‘victimized by.’”

Don’t sensationalize…  With those two words they make a great, but subtle point.  Not unlike a young man who’s comfortable enough to stand up for his values and the values of his family without making it seem like he’s taking a social risk by doing so.

Our language is changing; our ideas are changing.  Sometimes it seems slow.  Our culture still has much progress to make.  But it’s happening.

The (Un)Importance of Words

  • Posted on May 10, 2010 at 2:20 AM

Don’t get me wrong.  I love words.  I believe the words we use and the way we use them are very important.  But, when it comes to the issues of disabilities—acceptance, inclusion, empowerment, and accommodations—words are of secondary importance.

A new reader recently suggested that I’m a proponent of people-first language.  While this assertion is wholly understandable, it is not accurate.

As a writer, I find people-first language to be clumsy.  It interrupts the flow of the prose.  Yet, I would readily and easily sacrifice the flow of my prose for the sake of putting people first.

Except, people-first language doesn’t do that.

People-first language doesn’t put people first, conceptually speaking.  It’s a political device that puts politics first.  I have far too often heard others use people-first language in an ablistic, derogatory, people-last manner.

“My son is a child with autism.  It’s so horrible having a child with autism that I’ve considered taking him by the hand and jumping off a bridge.”

People-first language is only as good as the thinking of its user.  Disability-first language is only as bad as the thinking of its user.  When I say my children with autism or my autistic children, my language has changed but my thinking has not.  If I use auties, autists, or autistic, my language has changed but my thinking has not.  My children are always people first in my mind.  That’s how I conceptualize them.  They are people.  Facets of those people manifest themselves in behaviors psychologists (and, in turn, society) describe as autism.  Thus, they are people with autism.

People-first language does not change people’s thinking.  People-first language just changes their speaking.  To change people’s minds, their thinking needs to change.  Language can help.  People-first language can help.  But people-first language is not the solution; and it is often the smoke-screen that disguises the problem.

Yet…  Autism is somewhat unique in this respect.  While I do not see “blind people” as being blind first and people second regardless of the language I use, I also do not feel comfortable citing such a disability first and the person second.  I prefer, clunky as it is, to use “person with a visual impairment.”  Though I will gladly use whatever the individual prefers.  The same goes for other physical or mental/intellectual disabilities.

Part of the reason why I make this distinction is because Western culture has, for so very long, seen people with these kinds of disabilities as being not-whole, and therefore not valuable.  It’s so easy to see the disability first.  Yet, by putting the person first we can hope (however much in vain) that people will start seeing the people, regardless of their abilities/disabilities.

Yet…  The more my path crosses with other disability rights advocates—those not directly associated with neurodiversity—the more I see advocates re-claiming words like “crip.”  I try to respect and appreciate what they’re trying to do.  I try.  But the idea of calling another human being a “crip” makes me uncomfortable.  But, if that is their choice, who am I to say they’re wrong?

In short, I am an advocate of people-first thinking.  If we need people-first language to facilitate that thinking, then so be it.  Someday I hope people-first thinking will be so strongly ingrained in our societal make-up that we can talk with and about people with any disability without having to think about what to call them.

***

Now, on a different note, if you’re interested in exploring language in a poetic style, I would recommend checking out http://www.wordgathering.com/ .  The Inglis House Poetry Contest has two categories.  One is open to all.  The other is limited to writers with disabilities.  The subject of poems submitted to both categories is disabilities.  There’s no entry fee, but there is a prize.  So, if you like to play with words give it a try!  The deadline is June 1st, though, so you’ve got to be quick!

On Privilege

  • Posted on March 9, 2010 at 9:04 AM

Over the last several months I have been exposed to a lot of statements regarding privilege.  This concept of privilege has been used to cite “white privilege,” “straight privilege” and “neurotypical privilege,” just to name a few.  These concepts seek to describe the discrepancy of treatment between individuals among a majority and a minority.

From the minority perspective, this language describes experienced differences.  In other words, the discrepancy is real.  However, this does not make the concept of privilege (as used in this context) real.  It is this concept I seek to address.

Consider a few of the dictionary definitions of privilege:

  1. a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most
  2. a special right, immunity, or exemption granted to persons in authority or office to free them from certain obligations or liabilities
  3. any of the rights common to all citizens under a modern constitutional government

The dictionary definition of privilege does not support the use of the word in the context of a discrepancy between the majority and the minority.  For example, men tend to be assumed competent in work situations whereas women are more likely to be assumed incompetent in the same situation.  The men who are assumed competent are not privileged; the women who are assumed incompetent are disadvantaged.  There is a subtle, but significant difference.

Consider a few of the dictionary definitions of disadvantage:

  1. absence or deprivation of advantage or equality
  2. to subject to disadvantage

The word disadvantage more accurately describes the discrepancy of treatment.  Being privileged suggests that you are getting something you shouldn’t have, that you are being treated as special or above the norm.  If you are assumed to be competent at your job, you are not being treated special and you are not being assessed as above the norm.  You are being treated fairly.  On the other hand, being disadvantaged suggests that you are being denied something you should have, that you are being treated as inferior, below the norm.  If you are assumed to be incompetent at your job, you are being denied fair treatment.

The majority is not being given special rights above what most receive.  The minority is being denied rights and privileges (3rd definition listed) that they are entitled to and put at a disadvantage.

So, the use of privilege to describe the discrepancy between the majority and the minority is linguistically and rhetorically incorrect.  Perhaps more importantly, it’s also politically damaging.  When you accuse someone of being privileged, you are saying they have a benefit they are not entitled to.  This puts that person on the defensive.  Unless they are highly sympathetic to your cause, they are going to resist your false accusation and miss your valid claim of discrepancy of treatment.  You are discredited for making a false accusation; the real meat of your message isn’t even heard.  On the other hand, if the person is highly sympathetic to your cause, they are going to feel guilty, because they’ve internalized your false accusation and will feel responsible for having a benefit they shouldn’t or, more accurately, for having the benefit you were denied through no fault of their own.

Whether the individual you accuse of being privileged is sympathetic or not, a statement regarding privilege implies that individual has done something wrong by being “privileged.”  They’ve done nothing wrong (at least, not by accepting their “privilege”), because they are being treated fairly.  The wrong is not in the majority having privileges (3rd definition again), but in the minority being denied these same privileges.  Thus, the majority isn’t privileged (1st or 2nd definition), the minority is disadvantaged.

People need to understand the discrepancy of treatment between the majority and the minority.  When you’re in the majority, it’s difficult to imagine that those ordinary, every-day benefits you take for granted are denied to others on the basis of spurious reasons like skin color, gender, sexual orientation, or neurological makeup.  People need to learn about the real examples of these discrepancies.  Listing the benefits they enjoy and take for granted that are denied to others is an effective way to make people aware of the real discrepancies minority groups experience.  But calling them privileges is a mistake.  It conveys the wrong message.  It is inaccurate, because it is the wrong word.  Leave privileged to the powerful few—the senators and CEOs, the princes and dictators, the celebrities and the tycoons—and stick to accurate words that describe the majority, like benefits, rights, and advantages.  The difference may be subtle, but truth is powerful.