Should communicators work to eradicate offensive speech?

Communicators are lovers of language—which makes them the perfect advocates for civility and careful word choice. Here’s why you should speak up.

As communications professionals, we love language and generally have a marvelous way with words.

This helps us understand when not to use particular words and phrases.

As a deaf PR professional, I’m already hyper-aware of the use of language around disability. However, I was still shocked to discover the “H” word on the Cision UK website was a searchable category within their latest news function.

“Handicapped” is not an acceptable word to use in relation to persons with disabilities. This has been true in the UK for many years now.

So why is it on such a high-profile website like Cision?

Is the “H” word really still in use?

To make sure I wasn’t alone in my offensive language outrage (spoiler alert: I wasn’t), I turned to the Spin Sucks community, and my Twitter network. I sought their help to try and establish how widespread, or not, the use of this word is.

I was able to establish that in the UK, Ireland, Australia and Ghana, it’s a term not often in use. However, it is still in practice in Romania. A search for “handicapped” news brought up some interesting results including regional publications in Quebec, New Mexico, and the UAE. They all used the word in headlines for news articles.

However, results in the U.S. were far more disappointing. Considering both the PRSA and the AP Style Guide clearly state that the use of “handicapped” or “handicap” is to be avoided, it’s heavily used in headlines in many state publications.

(Disclosure: GDPR has prevented me from looking at these in-depth because of my EU location, so I don’t know if the word is used beyond the headline.)

Thanks to Spin Sucks community member Christopher Penn, who supplied a graph compiled from data using Google’s GDELT Google News database, we have a handy graph showing how often this term has been used by different countries in the last year. Many of those mentions were in relation to parking. However on further inspection, I found several using the term as an adjective to describe a person.

(Image courtesy of Christopher Penn)

Sadly, it does appear the “H” word is still in semi-popular use. How does that affect us as communicators?

The communicator’s responsibility

Where does the responsibility lie in forcing offensive language out of our lexicon for good?

Arguably, you might say Cision is a facilitator. They’re not responsible for the words themselves, but simply offer a vehicle for people to find articles relating to disability. If “handicapped” is still showing up in news releases, then it’s likely a search term people will use.

Both the Spin Sucks community and my own Twitter network overwhelmingly agreed the word has no place in modern communications.

As the mouthpiece for client organizations, PR pros are in an ideal position to make a permanent, positive change. This includes not enabling others to use terms that are outdated or offensive, specifically in relation to disability.

That means not sharing, promoting or supporting content that uses words such as “handicapped.”

Recently on Twitter, someone said disability is often the forgotten minority and “the hardest one for corporates to crack.” While I dislike the idea that minorities vary in importance, I do think there’s truth to it being hard to crack.

Disability is tough to talk about, so many don’t. It’s this silence that leads to the continuing use of offensive language—and a lack of empathy over how those words can hurt people with a disability.

This is where comms pros can step in.

PR pros are good listeners, adept at keeping their metaphorical fingers on the pulse of their audiences. These are good traits pros can employ to improve our disability-related communications.

Ways to abolish offensive language

To avoid mistakes like Cision’s (they removed the word and issued an apology) and step up to your responsibility to communicate with consideration, it’s important to understand the evolution of language related to minority groups such asdisability.

It can be complex.

Everyone has their own terminology for defining themselves. Some people are okay with using the term “disabled.” For others, it’s offensive.

However, everyone can all take steps to better equip themselves and be more aware when communicating disability and other news relating to diversity.

Here are four ways to begin:

  1. Connect with disability charities . UK charities, such as Scope, are a great resource to understand terminology usage, work requirements and opportunities in hiring persons with disabilities.
  2. Call it out . PR pros must speak up and speak out. For example, if you hear or see language related to disability and you know it’s not acceptable usage—or even if you think it could come across as offensive language—have that discussion. Invest the time in getting it right.
  3. Seek out unconscious bias training . This is also called implicit bias. This is something everyone has, but they don’t realize it. Training gives your the opportunity to see different world views and the tools to employ alternative tactics and actions, which benefit everyone.
  4. Keep industry resources handy . The CIPR, PRCA, and PRSA all have guidelines on suitable language around disability and diversity. These guides are free and easily available to download.

Why does it matter?

As PR pros realize that embracing those with diverse skills and talents can greatly benefit their teams, agencies and work, they’ll become better at understanding the language associated with disability.

They’ll also become more comfortable using it.

Disability covers a much wider range of conditions than most people realize, including depression and mental health-related illness. Both have seen a huge increase in the last few years—and it’s something PR as an industry is taking seriously.

We need to stop falling short on diversity-related issues in communications. Small changes, such as asking Cision to remove one word, make a difference and can help to ensure big changes happen over time.

Sara Hawthorn founded and runs InFusion Comms, a PR communications agency working for clients across energy, construction, and manufacturing. A version of this article originally appeared on the Spin Sucks blog .

(Image via)


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