It's Time for New Language

I had a life transforming experience earlier this year when I attended a Philia conference in Quebec. Most of the presenters spoke French, and as an English -only speaking individual, I found the experience frustrating and challenging. As I sat patiently, and sometimes not so patiently waiting for a translation, it struck me how "disabled" I felt. I felt completely inadequate to participate and contribute in my usual ways.. Being "disabled" offered me an insight I had not understood before. Though I was disabled, it wasn't me who was disabled. Rather, it was my relationship with others which was "disabled".

I thought about the word "disability" and how we use it in our culture. We use it as a label to describe people. The impact of this is that we come to perceive people as disabled, rather than the relationship. I wonder if our efforts to acquire inclusion and citizenship for all individuals is limited by the very language we use. Language has the power to form our reality. It creates our way of seeing others and the world. It seems to me that so long as we continue to use language as "disability" , further progress will be limited. Maybe it's time to formulate new language -language which acknowledges the vision in which all citizens are valued and included, and have the opportunity to contribute to society.

I offer a suggestion. It is not perfect, but it's possibly the next step in our evolution. I propose we identify a word which means, "the unrecognized citizen". My reasons are as follows: Firstly, imbedded in this language is the acknowledgement of citizenship. Citizenship for all. It doesn't debate the merits of individuals with a disability as citizens. It simply presents citizenship as a given. Secondly, "the unrecognized citizen" speaks of the inability of the community to recognize the citizenship of these individuals. Thirdly, it speaks to the relationship we have with these individuals. This language invites us to recognize these individuals as "citizens", and to take action to correct this situation.

My experience in Quebec informed me that it is the relationship between myself and other citizens which is disabled. It is not me. When this is fully acknowledged, my dignity remains intact. The focus shifts from changing me, to changing or augmenting the relationship to allow me to participate more fully. And this is what I believe ought to be at the core of all of our work and care for people we have labelled as "disabled" - to assist in ensuring they are able to participate fully in society.

When a fish is in water, the fish is agile, effective, and competent in its relationship with others and its environment. Placing a fish on land "disables" the fish. The corrective measure is not to change the fish, but to change the environment - change the relationship between the fish and its environment. So too with humans. Corrective measure is best focused, not on changing the individual, but on changing the environment, changing the relationship between the individual and their environment.

I think this new language has the potential to focus all of us, professionals, families, and community members alike, in a more positive, constructive, and respectful direction. I invite your comments and suggestions at

Ted Kuntz

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