What’s your preference: Do you want to be described as disabled? Handicapped? Wheelchair user? PWD? Crip? You’d probably like to avoid all labels, but in our stereotype-obsessed culture, that’s impossible. Still, Juliet Martinez , Arizona’s Ms. Wheelchair America 2014, is challenging her state to stop using terms she believes limit the perception of what people with disabilities can do.
Martinez joined forces with state lawmaker Rep. Stefanie Mach of Tucson, who sponsored a bill that would replace the words disabled, handicap, handicapped and handicapping in state law and materials produced by the state, such as parking signs and pamphlets.
“Those small words are a huge impact,” said Martinez, who has used a wheelchair since she was 8 years old, after an overdose of chemotherapy drugs. Instead, the state would be required to use various forms of “persons with disabilities.”
Advocates around Arizona believe the law, which is on its way to a vote in the state House, will result in an attitude change. “It is important to recognize that any individual with any disability is a person first and foremost,” Ann Monahan, of the Arizona Association of Providers for People with Disabilities, told Cronkite News Service.
In this highly conservative state, it’s surprisingly progressive to officially identify language that’s considered demeaning. But will the bill distract legislators from addressing other, more important issues for PWD in the state? If the bill passes, will elected officials check “PWD” off their to-do list of legislative initiatives? It can happen.
I witness the power of words to distract when I talk to journalists about better ways to write about people with disabilities in their communities. They always bring up language: “What if I use the wrong word? Will I insult them?” “How do I know what the correct terms are?” “What if I get the medical terminology wrong?” (As if all stories about us must be medically focused).
That language conversation is so heated and lasts so long it cuts into the discussion on more important journalistic issues, such as better story ideas (the lack of jobs for PWD in their areas), avoiding the easy “inspirational” story, and integrating the opinions of PWD into stories about general community issues (education, housing, crime, weather, recreation, etc.).
In other words, words have to power to distract. So, my hope is that Ms. Wheelchair Arizona gets beyond the word issue and stays true to her platform of advocacy and empowerment for Arizonans with disabilities. That will give her the golden opportunity to educate the public, state legislature and the press about the discrimination that still exists and the hard work needed to level the playing field.
An easy way to help nondisabled people learn how to interact with those who have all types of disabilities is to share United Spinal Association’s free publication, Disability Etiquette.