Thursday, May 26, 2016


A few weeks ago, I was in a discussion with a colleague about language. Specifically, we were discussing how frequently the language we use in the field of services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) falls short. How certain words just don’t quite fit.

We talked about some of the common language pitfalls in our field – client versus consumer, for example. I brought up one language challenge I have been contemplating lately – how often people with I/DD are described as being “vulnerable.”

Full disclosure – I have used the phrase “our most vulnerable citizens” when describing individuals who accept services from Imagine!. But language is an evolving thing, and I’d like to evolve with it. The more I think about the use of the word “vulnerable” when describing individuals with I/DD, the more I realize the meaning and general understanding of the term is acting as a barrier to a more open and inclusive society.

Imagine!’s new mission statement is “Creating a world of opportunity for all abilities.” The mission deliberately uses positive language, emphasizing what people with I/DD can do, not what they can’t do.

Using a word like “vulnerable” doesn’t emphasize possibilities. It doesn’t highlight strengths. It promotes what people are not. It doesn’t do anything to move us forward in the effort to create a world of opportunity.

Our very system of funding and delivering services is built on the use of terms such as vulnerable, and it has led to a system where we ration services based on what people are not capable of doing.

When a jobseeker creates a resume, he or she highlights strengths. Resumes don’t focus on limitations or liabilities (at least, no successful resume does). This isn’t because the person creating the resume is being dishonest. It is because we all want to put our best face forward. We all want to show what we have done in the past and what we are capable of doing in the future if given the opportunity.

Does basing I/DD services on an individual’s vulnerabilities instead of their strengths lead to desired outcomes? If not, should we look at a system where a person’s strengths and skills are the primary factors in determining how and why services are delivered? These are tough questions, but there is no better time than now to answer them.

Then again, what do I know?

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