Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Watch My Language

Watching some of the first round of World Cup games this weekend started me thinking once again about language and how complex it can be – words can take on different meanings depending on context and tone. For instance, I notice that the television announcers often use the word “ambitious” when they want to imply that a player attempted to do something that was perhaps a little beyond what was required for that particular moment in the game. It has a slightly negative and condescending tone. And yet, in other contexts, we often use the word “ambitious” as a positive way to describe a person and their actions, as something to be admired, not frowned upon.

Now, I am aware that commenting on the complexity of language hardly represents original thinking on my part. It is no news to any one who speaks almost any language that the meaning and understanding of words can and usually does go beyond just a literal definition of the words.

But it is an issue that confounds those of us in the field of developmental disabilities (if that is the appropriate phrase). How do we describe the individuals who receive services from us? Two commonly used words are client and consumer. But both of those carry connotations that could be perceived as inaccurate at best and outright negative at worst. My colleague Colette Marie, who runs our Out & About department, and I recently had a discussion about this topic, and she sent me a follow up email on the subject. She had heard an interview on NPR with Bill Moyers, and she wrote:

Bill Moyers talked about his career, how he got started with NPR and the importance of NPR, the danger in becoming an exclusively “market-driven society.” He said that if you limit yourself to viewing or thinking of people only as “consumers” then the tendency is to only think about them in terms of what you might sell them and what they might buy, in other words, how you might make a profit out of them. Where as, if you view people as citizens, you can much better entertain the idea of “value,” what you might offer that would be of value and what they might be able to respond back with in a reciprocal, collaborative fashion. He talked about things that a market-driven society cannot provide, because while those things add value, they are not profitable.

We have had conversations in the past and I have voiced my objection to the term “consumer” instead of “client” or some other term. While we might not be able to change the prevailing term “consumer” right now, I think we are bound to voice our objection, or at least support thoughtful discussion, because “consumer” does imply that the relationship is strictly financial and one way: we sell, they buy.

Things Bill Moyers specifically mentioned that cannot happen in a strictly market-driven society, because they are not profitable, are art, public toilets, public libraries, public education, parks and activities and community relationships that nourish and feed the mind. He said that NPR was founded to provide people with information that would feed the mind, foster creativity and contribute something of value to their quality of life and that because they were not-for-profit, they could do so without regard to profit-driven agendas. This doesn’t mean that NPR doesn’t pay attention to finances and that it doesn’t have to figure out how to be fiscally sound.

I’m feeling like Bill Moyers is right on and very much in line with where we should be aiming. What do we have to offer that is of value? What do the people we are providing services to have to offer us and their communities? How might we feed and nourish our (“our” being participants, families, staff, community members) minds, hearts and spirits? And because this is the real world, how might we do this and do it in a way that is financially sound? (Please notice that the financial question comes last, just as it ought to.)

Placing a label (positive or negative) on the people who receive services from us is not a simple thing. How can we describe their relationship with us in way that is clear and concise and yet is neither negative, nor defines the individuals by their deficiencies?

Prompted by Colette’s thoughtful email, I am re-committing myself to being very careful about the language I use and words I choose. “People first” language goes without saying. Here are some other examples:

Why assume a person has multiple disabilities? Why not a single developmental disability?

I don’t like the implied ownership of people; “my consumer”, “our clients”. How about, “This is Bob – he lives with me.” In day service scenarios, “Here are some friends of mine.” “These are people I know.” “Here are people I’m with.”

Whatever I use, I intend to add to a person’s character in a good way, not diminish it.

I’d love to hear other ideas and suggestions. Language does matter, and the words we choose make a difference.

Then again, what do I know?


  1. My mother taught me that you do not have to explain your relationship with someone when you are introducing them to someone. i.e. This is Mark. Let Mark reveal who he is!

  2. I often use, in writing, individuals, people, folks, and sometimes add who receive our services and supports, rarely consumers or clients. We have heard self-advocate as a preferred term in today's environments. I had a conversation with someone the other day after seeing "citizens with developmental disabilities" and felt uncomfortable about that, but googled it and saw that it is a fairly common terminology. As you say though, why label?

  3. My partner Kitty was explaining her job at Out and About to a friend and said that she works with people with different "abilities." The person replied that she had never thought of the people we work with in that light. I think it is great to focus on and be inspired by the things that the people we work with can do, not what they can't do.

  4. At the day-hab program I work for I tend to refer to those of us getting paid simply as staff, while everyone is a "participant". Yes I can call them another consumer, and it looks OK on paper, but In when talking to them i tend to use buddy, or brotha, or homeboy, or some other term that means friend.
    Why label names for those who are simply not average? A primary counselor with several acronyms in-between is a "staff" where as the people I serve are "why I'm here."
    Individuals select their own names, and what they feel conferrable being called. If they prefer to titled Homeboy to their given first name, then that is who that person is.