Most people grow up learning how to use sensitive language surrounding different kinds of communities. We were all at one point in our lives taught how to avoid using sexist, ageist, and racist language, and how to discuss a topic without disrespecting anyone or making anyone uncomfortable. However, there are still aspects of the society that some of us have never had proper contact with.
In a Jan. 25 Letter to the Editor titled “Response to ‘Emerson Special Olympics Event Draws Hundreds,’” Emerson student and Beacon staff writer Shruti Rajkumar found fault with The Beacon’s reporting of the original Jan. 21 article.
The letter brought attention to the article’s harmful terminology. Rajkumar said the use of the term “special needs” is “considered a derogatory and offensive term by many within the community” because it implies an “othering” by abled people. She also noted that referring to the Special Olympics athletes as “kids” suggests that people with accessibility needs are “grown children.”
Rajkumar also found a lack of quotes from the athletes. Instead, there is a quote from a mother of one of the athletes, suggesting that the athletes are incapable of speaking for themselves.
“Interviewing someone with a disability is not an ethical dilemma,” she wrote.
There are so many things that we could have done differently to avoid these kinds of mistakes as a newsroom, like asking how the athletes would prefer being addressed, but we simply did not examine our approach to this event in a more educated manner.
On the other hand, we need to point out that there is a lack of education surrounding terms when describing disabled communities. The Emerson community supposedly prides itself on being inclusive to different groups by introducing practices such as asking for preferred pronouns and creating a comfortable environment for all students. This inclusivity, however, seems to exclude the disabled community.
While Emerson and other institutions make efforts to use inclusive language, this often does not extend to the disabled community. People with disabilities want to be recognized for their abilities, not their disabilities. There is no excuse for not being inclusive of all groups.
Living and going to school with students with disabilities means we should all know how to properly address their community. Nearly 1 in 5 people worldwide have some form of disability, according to the World Health Organization. Students and faculty should receive proper education on the language that members of this community prefer.
Inclusivity extends beyond ramps and physical accommodations. While many are familiar with the preferred language for different gender, sexual, and racial identities, the disabled community is often overlooked. Our words have an impact, whether we are conscious of it or not. We can do better to make students with accessibility needs feel more accepted within the school community.
Able-bodied individuals should acknowledge their privilege of not having to worry about how people address their physical abilities. Some people with accessibility needs also prefer “people-first language,” in which the person’s identity is not solely defined by their physical or mental accessibility needs.
Small changes in our language have a large impact on how we make people with accessibility needs feel. If you are unsure of how someone wishes to be addressed, it is better to ask them rather than just assume.
Within the “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” online training program required for incoming first-year students, there should be a greater emphasis on how to address students with accessibility needs. The program does address sensitivity in regards to race, microaggressions, and general bias, but mental and physical disabilities deserve a stronger presence within this program. Students and faculty should also take the initiative to research the terms that people within the disabled community prefer.
There is more that society can do to properly acknowledge members of the disabled community. Going forward, The Beacon will make a greater effort to be inclusive of all marginalized communities, and we encourage the school to create more educational programs surrounding these communities as well.