A branding iron stamped the words “Own It” on a surface.

It isn’t that I never slip. I do. I am of an older generation and sometimes the words of my past and my history come out of my mouth when I don’t intend for them to.

Maybe that is true for you, too. If you are new to IL, or even if you have been a part of IL for a long time, there are terms we need to examine and in some cases exterminate from our vocabulary.

  • One thing that may be a surprise is that we don’t always use people first language. People first language addresses “people with disabilities” rather than “disabled person”, and some of the time that is the right approach. But some of the time we should own our disability and put it first — “the disabled community”, for example.
  •  We don’t repeat the labels of other disability-related organizations. You have heard these labels — “special needs”, “differently abled”, “high functioning”, “low functioning”, “mental age”. Let me speak to that mental age label as an example. First of all, there isn’t anything valuable that comes from that label, that way of categorizing people. Secondly, a person who is 23 who has been labeled as having a “mental age of six”, isn’t 6. She has the life experience of a 23 year old, so nothing useful comes out of the limitations of mental age. CILs do not typically use “differently abled” because, again, we are proud of our disability and our disability community.
  • We avoid terms that show prejudice against a specific disability. We don’t use “mental retardation” or “mental illness”, first of all. People with intellectual disabilities or mental health disabilities cringe when they hear those terms.  These and other terms emphasize a negative stereotype of the people they are describing.
  • Slang that has disability roots is not acceptable. Retarded, crazy, nuts, mental, and more are used in the vernacular to describe all kinds of things unrelated to disability — but these are terms that show a prejudice against some of us with disabilities who have been hurt by such slurs.
  • As people with disabilities we can reclaim some previously negative labels. For example, there is a project supported by Centers for Independent Living called “Crip the Vote”, which encourages people with disabilities to register and to vote. We have reclaimed that negative “crip” for our own.
  • Why do we use the term “consumer” instead of customer or client or other terms? When we created the laws and regulations around Independent Living, we needed a way to describe that our organizations are controlled by us, not by the non-disabled world. “Consumer” was a powerful word related to the rights of the person purchasing goods or services. “Consumer control” is the hallmark of centers, which assures that more than 50% of the board, management and staff of a center are disabled. When it comes to your own language inside your center, you don’t have to make “consumer” a label for the people you serve. You can just call them people. But the power of “consumer control” makes “consumer” a term we want to claim as our own.
Words do matter!

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