Disability and Why Language Matters

The word ‘so’ has a number of uses in everyday language – perhaps surprisingly so (there it is again) given that it only has two letters.  ‘I decided to walk so that I could get some exercise’ and ‘I knew I could only carry on for so long without regular exercise before my health was at risk’ are two further examples.

You may have noticed that increasingly over the last few years, people being interviewed by the media – especially on TV and radio – have begun to use ‘so’ at the beginning of a response to a question regardless of what they are about to say.   You may also have heard that some people have objected to this because most of the time the word ‘so’ could be left out without changing the meaning of what is being said.  So in these cases the ‘so’ is not required – it is the superfluous so.

Does it really matter?  Whatever you believe there are instances when changing the way we express ourselves can shape our attitudes.  Take disability.  The way society has typically defined disability in the past is in terms of what is known as the individual model (sometimes called the medical or charity model). The individual model treats disability in terms of the individual, the condition, which they have, and the things they can’t do. For example: John is a person with a disability. He suffers from Multiple Sclerosis (MS); he can’t walk and is confined to a wheelchair, so he can’t take the bus. As long as his condition can’t be cured he is regarded as a helpless victim in need of pity and charity.

The social model was developed by disabled people and it says that having an impairment is neither positive or negative – it just is. John doesn’t suffer from an impairment, he has an impairment. Disability arises because society is set up to meet the needs of able-bodied people.  John has MS.  Many buses are still configured to suit people who can walk, so John is disabled by inaccessible buses.  Imagine a world in which every office ceiling was 5ft-9” (1.75m) above the floor.  Would we continue to build offices with such low ceilings and accept that workers over 6ft (1.83m) tall are disabled and cannot work in offices?

CAB advisers provide advice in relation to the rights of individuals under the Equality Act 2010.  They are encouraged to promote the social model in the way they do so – including the way they express themselves.  For example referring to someone as,

  • having a medical condition rather than suffering from one,
  • being a wheelchair user rather than being confined to a wheelchair,
  • a disabled person rather than a person with disabilities,
  • a blind or deaf person rather than a person with visual or hearing impairment.

Obviously changing the way we describe disability cannot by itself change the way we think about people who are disabled.  It can however play a part in helping us all to see people as equal regardless of difference and what that difference might be.

The Equality Act 2010 recognises ‘protected characteristics’ which in addition to disability include age, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, marriage and civil partnership, and pregnancy and maternity.  If you have suffered discrimination as a result of belonging to any of these groups, you can get help and advice on what to do about it from Citizens Advice.  You can also get information and advice on Debt, Benefits, Consumer Issues, Relationships, Housing, Law and Rights, Education, Discrimination, Tax and Healthcare by:

  • calling 0344 848 7969 to speak to an assessor or make an appointment to talk to an adviser face-to face. (calls to this service cost the same as calling 01 and 02 numbers included as part of a mobile allowance or a landline call package.
  • visiting https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/ to access our comprehensive range of information and advice
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