Disabilities or Different Abilities

Disabilities OR Different Abilities: The Effects of Positive Language

By: Sarah Olson

What is Language? The dictionary defines it as:

1. the method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way.

2. a system of communication used by a particular country or community.

Language binds us all as humans, yet it separates us simultaneously. It comes in so many different forms, such as dialects, verbal, non-verbal, visual, sign, and body language. It is the MOST powerful form of communication the human race has ever developed. 

Have you ever been in a situation having to explain what you do for work and use a generic sentence? It never occurred to me how much I was like everyone else in my field before my experience. When asked, I would reply, “I support individuals with disabilities,” a common phrase for people who work in this field. I had fallen victim to “normal.” What I DIDN’T realize is that my brain had secretly decided it had enough. Unbeknownst to me, it was planning to pull an “autocorrect” at the perfect moment. It was plotting a change to my vocabulary that I was NOT expecting. 

You may be wondering where I am going with this article. I will tell you because the experience caught me off guard and humbled me at the same time. It left me bewildered, pondering, and with a new sense of appreciation for words. It has allowed me to witness the power of language, first-hand, on a typical Friday night. 

Unforgettable Encounter

One evening about a month ago, I gave a ride to a Lyft passenger (we’ll call him Jim). I picked Jim up from the airport to take to his hotel. He was in town for a business trip, and a newcomer to Roswell, we started to make small talk on the 20-minute ride to his destination. I briefly began to tell Jim about what I do for employment. I explained that I work for a wonderful non-profit that supports individuals of different abilities in various areas of their lives. We give them the chance to live as independently as possible. 

At that moment, as I finished my sentence, I silently thought to myself, where did THAT come from, different Abilities?! I couldn’t figure it out. As someone who advocates daily for the individuals we support, I have become accustomed to the common phrase “I support individuals with disabilities.” As my brain spontaneously shifted directions, it was then; I realized that this was a powerful transformation of language that was about to make a significant impact in this man’s life who I had just picked up five minutes prior.

Seeing Abilities Not Disabilities

Jim was astounded at my choice of words “different abilities” instead of “disabilities.” This allowed him to open up about his son, who was born with a disability. The struggles to advocate and support his son to be accepted into the community because of a stigma that “people with disabilities” endure all their lives. Jim stated he wants his son to be recognized and appreciated for his “abilities,” not his “disability.” With the simple change of words, “individuals with different abilities,” Jim broke down and cried. He told me that his son’s favorite characters are Superheroes; then, I CRIED because of the revelation. We talked about how Superheroes all have “different abilities,” just like his son and the individuals I support. Jim was silent and in awe. He had never had someone who understands what he is advocating for before.

End of One Ride, Start of Another

Shortly after, we arrived at his destination, and he said he wished he could hug me because of the conversation and experience we just had. Instead, I encouraged him to continue to advocate for his son and use positive, powerful language that shines a light on everything his son CAN do and not the things his son CAN’T do. 

I have been driving for Lyft in Roswell for a year and a half. I never had such a humble life-changing conversation (and I have had many discussions) or encounter on a ride. As I left my passenger at his destination and pulled over to process what had just happened. It made me realize just how powerful the right set of words can be. It can be the difference between positive & negative, good & bad. And in some instances, completely change someone’s outlook on life for the better. 

Now every time I want to say, “I support individuals with disabilities,” my brain automatically changes it to “I support individuals with different abilities.” I will never use the other phrase again because of the powerful and positive impact on those around me.

I encourage you to try it. Make a positive change in your vocabulary when talking to others around you. It just might surprise not only you but others as well.

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