When Positive Words Exclude

28 Nov

I’m working on a contract with a colleague for Special Olympics Canada. SOC is an amazing organization doing amazing things, and this week I really want to share what I’m reading on their Language Guidelines page.

The language we use (i.e. our choice of words) is an integral component of creating safer and inclusive spaces – at home, in the office, at school, on campus, in the community etc. How we treat people is another key part of creating safer and inclusive spaces. The SOC Language Guidelines are specific to people with intellectual disabilities, but we can take much of them and apply them broadly. One point in particular stands out for me in the SOC Language Guidelines:

“Do not sensationalize the accomplishments of persons with disabilities. While these accomplishments should be recognized and applauded, people in the disability rights movement have tried to make the public aware of the negative impact of referring to the achievements of people with physical or intellectual disabilities with excessive hyperbole.”

Ah. What does it say when we “go overboard” and fall all over ourselves to recognize and congratulate (in this case) the accomplishments of someone with an intellectual disability. The underlying message (subtle, but present) is that we didn’t expect it, or we didn’t think they could do it.  

In almost all of my workshops the conversation turns, at one point or another, to the sentiment that “we can’t say anything anymore”, and that people are too sensitive. What I think this shows is that people are mourning the loss of a culture where we could speak without thinking, and where the onus was on the receiver to ‘suck it up’. Ah yes.

And the challenge of not thinking before we speak is that so many of the things we say (and the ways we act) are based on outdated and deeply held beliefs in society – so deep that we don’t even recognize them – that we (often unconsciously) perpetuate in our words, actions and inactions.  Are we getting too sensitive? Sometimes, perhaps. But we are also becoming more aware of systemic inequities and how these are perpetuated overtly and covertly. Inclusion requires work. Part of that work is thinking more; being more aware.


Athletes who participate in Special Olympics are achieving their personal best and being recognized for it, just as athletes who participate in the Olympics are achieving their personal best and being recognized for it (note that I didn’t write Special Olympics Athletes, put athletes in quotation marks, or write the ‘regular’ Olympics – more examples of inclusive language). In both cases, the athletes’ efforts and accomplishments should be admired and applauded. Period. And if one of these accomplishments catches you by surprise, take a moment to think about why – and use the opportunity to perhaps challenge a belief you may not even know you had.

See more.

Copywright 2013 Annemarie Shrouder
Author, Speaker and Facilitator on issues of Diversity & Inclusion.



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