The Role of Language on the Way to an Equal Society

Bonnita Nyamwire July 9, 2021

As the Digital Human Rights Lab we are convinced that language determines our being. We know that rethinking and changing one's language is an essential process on the way to an equal society.

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People with Disabilities (PWD) are particularly often confronted with discriminatory language. It is therefore urgent to take a comprehensive look at how we can use our language as a means to ensure inclusion and equality.

We talked to expert Bonnita Nyamwire about what all of us can do to make our language more inclusive and why that is so important.

Bonnita, why is it important to talk about language and the way we talk?

It is important to talk about language and the way that all of us talk so that we can express ourselves in a clear and inclusive way, as well as giving others the chance to resonate with what we are communicating. It helps to ensure that what we are talking about does not perpetuate inequality especially for vulnerable communities/groups. Language also fosters positive ideas and inspiration especially for vulnerable people. Language/words define who that person is, describes who they are.

What does it mean that language determines our thinking?

For me thoughts come first and so language is a reflection of what we think. If we think that PWDs should be able to participate in the society and be supported with assistive devices, then that is what we shall speak, that is what we shall enforce. For instance the government thinks PWDs are few so they cannot spend on them, definitely they are not spending on assistive tech and devices for them.

What is non-discriminatory language?

Non-discriminatory language is language that is impartial, unbiased and inclusive. It does not include stereotypes or terminology that stigmatizes or offends a particular group about their age, gender, disability among others.

Why is using non-discriminatory language so important when it comes to PWDs?

This is because we do not want to offend or demean Persons with Disabilities by using certain terminologies. For instance using the word disabled makes PwDs look like they are totally unable to do anything, they are disconnected, and it is different from addressing them as differently abled. Differently abled shows in context that they are able people, they have different capabilities despite the physical disability and they are able to do something for themselves. This is already a vulnerable group of people and so using discriminatory language will be exacerbating the vulnerability and creating a society around them that seems not to be accepting of them.

What role does language play on the way to an equal society?

Language plays a key role in ensuring an equal society because it deters sharing of harmful messages that would otherwise widen the inferiority of a particular group. Language can also influence expression of beliefs and perceptions that may shape equality in society as mentioned above. For instance, use of disability terminologies like differently abled can show that PWDs are able to equally perform tasks like abled persons and assistive devices can play a crucial role in that.

In an older blog post, you said: “When you are advocating for People with Disabilities, you are advocating for your future self”. How are we advocating for PWD by changing our language?

Using terminologies that do not demean but rather encourage PwDs - , terminologies that do not pity them, make, or feel they have less value but those that inspire, motivate and empower.

Where do you feel we are right now in the discourse around non-discriminatory language?

For persons with disabilities, most sectors including education, gender, judiciary, the legislature use non-discriminatory language for PWDs. The general public however still has insufficient knowledge about language use in relation to vulnerable groups and PWDs in particular.

Do you have any advice and/or know of resources that can help us and other organisations to use a more inclusive language?

Changing our language and the terminology that we use especially for vulnerable communities is the beginning of encouraging more inclusive mindsets and conversations and working towards an all inclusive society. Tweaking our language as services providers, care givers, policy makers, CSOs of persons with disabilities, should be highly regarded. Attending events of vulnerable groups can help partners to learn how to use better language for a particular group, they will see how they are addressed. PWDs advocates should coach others in using positive language and phrases like “persons with disabilities” instead of disabled persons “visually impaired” instead of” blind”, “hard of hearing” instead of “deaf”, “uses a wheelchair” instead of “confined in a wheelchair”. We should use language to inspire and empower vulnerable people. Partners should ensure the language they use to describe persons with disabilities respects their dignity and humanity.

Thank you Bonnita for taking the time to talk to us about this important topic. As we are continuously working on adapting our language, we’d like to invite everyone to point out any linguistic carelessness to us at any time so that we can continue to improve our content.

For further information on the topic of inclusive language, see e.g. Language Guide