Is it just a matter of words?

Jessica Jackson | 1 June 2020

When we talk about patients, what we call them can have a real impact.

Many of us in healthcare communication know the importance of health literacy. For anyone new to this, it is essentially the ability for people to understand and communicate information about their health and make informed decisions about it.

However, it isn’t just the language we use that is important, but the order of our words. It may seem petty to some, but for people with chronic conditions or disabilities it can have a huge influence on their self-image.

Picture being called a ‘disabled person’ all the time. You might feel that is all there is to your identity. You may be an amazing artist or a brilliant mathematician. But simply being called a disabled person can minimise everything else about your personality and abilities, focusing on your limitations. Disability becomes your main feature.

Now picture being a ‘person who has a disability’. You can now easily have many other qualities. Having a disability is just one of the features you have, it isn’t what you are.

And ‘disability’ can be swapped out for anything. Instead of autistic people, talk about people with autism; someone who uses a wheelchair is not just a wheelchair-bound person.

It’s a small change but it may help patients feel seen as people, not labelled as an 'other' or defined by their condition. After all, patients are people too. This sensitivity in our language can help them maintain their identities.

Imagine if Stephen Hawking had resigned himself to being a ‘disabled person’. He might have given up on his work and maybe even had a much shorter life. Instead, by not letting ALS define him and keeping a strong identity as a physicist, the world of physics advanced dramatically. He isn’t famous because he had a disability, but because he was a genius.

Let us help people maintain their identities when they are affected by illnesses and disabilities. We may just encourage the next Stephen Hawking to carry on being who they are and not let their condition define them.