Friday, May 20, 2016


Yesterday I went to a presentation wherein I knew, going in, that the audience would be made up from people from a variety of different service sector, each serving different people with differing programs and services. I'm not used to these kinds of meetings, typically I go to meetings where everyone in the audience does different versions of the same thing. I was looking forward to it but, as I'm a presenter, I wondered about those who would be addressing such a diverse audience. How were they going to get around the complex issue of language.

We spend a lot of time talking about language in the disability community and the disability sector. Just recently on Facebook I participated with a comment in a discussion about person first language - a topic that never seems to go away. People are quite impassioned about their feelings and, I believe, have a right to be. Language frames how we see ourselves and can influence how others see, feel or react to who we are. So, I wondered, and worried a bit, about how these presenters were going to build a frame big enough for their presentation such that we were all included.

For me, as a disabled person, I think I react to language in a visceral rather than intellectual way. I know I can't hide my reaction when people use language that diminishes or language that dismisses. I also worried that the presenters may do what I've seen others do, use some elaborate construction of words with a 'wink wink' to the audience that communicates, 'look at the silly means we have to go to to be politically correct.'
 That drives me wild. Or, alternately, use respectful words but trip over them so often so as to communicate, 'Hey, I'm using this here because I have to, I don't talk like this normally.' So, I went in with worries.

But, I had no reason to. From the outset the presenters all used really inclusive language and used it in a natural way. I heard terms I'd never heard before, remember this was to a very, very, diverse audience, like 'equity seeking groups' or 'populations facing multiple barriers.' Now, I'm not suggesting for a moment that I'm going to start using these terms, because I'm not, I don't need to, I will continue to use terms that reflect the work I do and the life I live, and those are terms around disability. What I am suggesting is that it is possible when speaking to be conscious to use language in a way that both conveys meaning and compassion at the same time.

I'll tell you the language used reflected the entire presentation. There was a care and gentleness there about the whole thing, even the technical parts, they really wanted their audience to understand, feel supported and feel valued. It started with language that cared and it ended with behaviour that reflected that care.

People go on and on about politically correct language. I don't get it. I found their language accurate and compassionate, they used it naturally, they used it carefully, shouldn't that always be the case?

All to say, I went to a meeting yesterday and felt cared about just because of how the presenters spoke about people.


Denise said...

Language is a symbolic code used by cultures to express shared beliefs, values and opinions. My psycholinguistics professor drummed this in my head 25 years ago and I'm still sharing it with others. Language matters. I'm glad you had a positive experience yesterday.

Frank_V said...

Being "politically correct" just means being polite. Too many people equate being polite as being weak. Believe me, Gandhi was both strong AND polite.

ecodrew said...

That's cool, glad you had a good experience. It shouldn't be that hard to follow "Wheaton’s Law". I hope there's some way you can share this positive feedback to the fellow presenters. Since we are much more prone to only give feedback when it's negative, I've been trying to make an effort to give positive feedback (online, to waiters, service providers, doctors, nurses, etc) when it's deserved.

Dave Hingsburger said...

ecodrew, I spoke to one of the people from the presenting team about the use of language, or as I said then, they used words without blood on them. You are right that people are more likely to criticize than compliment and I think when I started the woman thought I was going to be critical and was relieved that I had positive things to say. I agree with you, if you like it ... say so.

Belinda Burston said...

"It started with language that cared and it ended with behaviour that reflected that care." So wonderful to hear that you had that experience. There are good people out there!

History will spit on us said...

Any more information about this meeting would be welcome, eg Who the excellent presenters were and how did this super-diverse event come to be? NB Gmail is signing me in with my son's account by no choice of mine, sorry about that: this is Dinah not Leo Murray commenting here.