But Words CAN Hurt Me!

jo ann cropRead our last post: An Inclusive Shabbat Experience

by: Jo Ann Simons

The Associated Press just released new guidance to reporters on how to write about mental illness and other conditions, including autism.  The much used Associated Press Stylebook tries to stay current but apparently has not kept up with their own news. For example, autism is not a mental illness and “people first” language is actually the law in much of the land.

While one of my favorite posters of all time read “Label Jars. Not People”, we still are trying to stick people, especially those with disabilities, with meaningless labels.

I understand why labeling a person in the rarest of occasions might be important and relevant. For example, when an Amber Alert is issued in the United States for a kidnapped child, it is essential that specific identifying characteristics be shared. It would be essential to know if the child was black, had an unsteady walk or had Down syndrome. This information would help identify the child and ensure a happy ending.

However, most of the time, they are irrelevant and only serve to prevent the full inclusion of people in our society. They also help perpetuate stereotypes.

For example, the only reason to identify the race or ethnicity of someone accused of welfare fraud, is to create bias.  We all know that fraud is committed across all race and socio-economic lines.

words can hurt

This kind of prejudicial thinking is one of the major reasons people with disabilities are still relegated to the margins of society. Since people with disabilities are the poorest group of people in the world and the recipients of much public assistance, they are at the greatest risk to the negative effects of labels associated with disability and poverty.

This hit close to home for me last month in St. Louis. I am often asked to speak to audiences on the transition from school to adult life for students with disabilities. As part of the discussion on economics and funding streams, I explain the importance and value of the Section 8 program, a housing subsidy program for the poor in the United States (my son uses a Section 8 Housing voucher). It can be argued that it is among the most important benefits for a person with a disability for it ensures safe, flexible and quality housing.

Stereotypes and Reality

This almost always comes as a surprise to my audiences since they often associate this housing program with the negative stereotypes that the press has perpetuated- that largely minority households take advantage of this program and that slum landlords manage undesirable housing.  I spend much time dispelling these myths and my usually white audiences have to be convinced.

I was unprepared and grateful for the small group of black families who came up to me after my presentation to thank me for my comments about the Section 8 program.  They told me that they often feel that others “put their noses” around this subject and that I had done much to “get it right”.

It brought me back to an earlier time when teachers and others always began a description of my son by saying he had Down syndrome. It told you nothing about how he learned, his strengths or the areas where improvement was needed. It only told you how he looked. It was early in my journey so I didn’t question it until I received his progress report from his first grade teacher at Temple Emanuel (Marblehead, MA). She said, ”Jonathan has made much progress since last year. He knows the three meanings of Shalom and he can recite the Shema (morning prayer). He loves music class with Mr. Sokolov. He is a joy to have in class.”

So while the Associated Press gives reporters new guidance on labels for people with disabilities, I can continue to hope for a day when they are not required.

Jo Ann Simons is a Disability Advisor to the Ruderman Family Foundation and President and CEO of the Cardinal Cushing Centers


Filed under Disabilities Trends, In the Media, perceptions of disability

2 responses to “But Words CAN Hurt Me!

  1. Shelley Cohen

    Excellent points on both Section 8 and the inherent bias in labeling.

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