Not long ago I reached out to someone I'd never met about helping with program for students in a local arts program. The woman commented that she appreciated the opportunity to work with young people, especially those who are underserved. This conversation reminded me of the power of language. It also reminded me about our community’s current public discussion about having certain neighborhoods officially designated as slums in order to meet federal funding guidelines.
As an educator, I made a shift from compensating for students’ deficits to identifying and building on their strengths. Not much different from what the wrestling coach taught my son about how to build a base. I began to use people first language and replaced one word with another: children with disabilities rather than disabled children, accessible rather than handicapped, typical rather than normal.
As a lover and teacher of languages I have always been fascinated with idiomatic expressions. Why do the French describe someone as an elephant rather than a bull in a china shop? While English speakers let grass grow under their feet, Russians wait by the sea for the weather. There’s even research about how language reflects and shapes perceptions of the world
But language is just the beginning. Choosing our words is little more than an attempt at being politically correct unless we also think about how language reflects new and different ways of thinking and acting.