The Words We Use

Words have power, and words define reality. How we think and speak can tremendously impact those around us. Our conception of others, expressed in terms and lived in action, defines reality for another person. During my undergraduate studies, a favorite professor, a former schoolteacher, and principal, was famous for saying, “No one rises to low expectations.”  Our terms communicate our expectations related to how we view others.

The words we use related to the disability community have evolved. As society’s conception of those who learn and engage in society differently, the words we use to describe community members have changed. Some changes are for the better, others for the worse. Language is a living medium. As such, it is essential that we critically evaluate our use of language in reflection of how much power language has in our reality.

One of the words that have been troubling to me since coming to Target Community and Educational Services is the term we use to describe those we serve…clients. I do not love it. In my experience, when I am a client, I am engaged in a transactional relationship—a one-way exchange. The connection is one-directional when I go to the bank to complete a transaction. Even if I have engaged with the person helping me with the transaction many times, the association exists with a boundary that is only that of familiarity. To live outside of those bounds would be, in the parlance of our youth, ‘cringe.’

When we engage in acts of service, we must understand that our interactions are not transactional. Our relationship is reciprocal. Something is given, and something is received. Something more than depositing a check into an account. The duality of the relationship of service is symbiotic in that we both benefit. Both people in the interaction are being served in some way. Both leave the experience with something they did not possess at the onset.

Using the term client in a service-related relationship reduces the experience and projects someone gives to someone without. A hierarchy is established. I am a “have,” and you are a “have not.”  This thinking has no place in the disability community, as disability is a natural part of the human experience. Someone who learns or engages in the community differently is not less of a person, and that person is not any less worthy of the inherent dignity and worth of all people. There is no hierarchy, and we are all people equally.

In recognition of the reciprocity in service relationships, I proposed that Target moves away from the term client in honor of the individuals who reside and participate in our services. Those who live in our residential communities are residents, and those who engage in our community and vocational services are participants. Thus, all who engage with Target services are participants.

Changing language takes time. We are creatures of habit. But slowly, our language will change, as it does, to include this more inclusive, reciprocal experience that we live in our work.