|James H. Rimmer, Ph.D., Director|
Two of my favorite phrases were: "Words are as fragile as eggs; once broken they're very hard to repair," and, "Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it's very hard to get back in."
These phrases apply ever so precisely to terms used to describe people with disabilities. Personal trainers, fitness professionals, and many others in the industry are still using terminology that is offensive to people with disabilities. For example, referring to a member as "wheelchair-confined" or "wheelchair-bound" is not a good way to start the relationship.
Thinking of someone as "physically challenged" or having "special needs" is also offensive. Why think of anyone as "special" Would you like to be labeled as the personal trainer with "special needs" by one of your former professors because you had trouble computing body mass index? How would you like to be described by your boss as "computationally challenged?" Who cares! The important thing is to understand what adaptations you need to overcome any limitations in your performance. Leave the word "special" to loved ones and dear friends, and "challenged" to those trying to climb Mount Everest. The rest of us are just trying to make it in a world full of discrimination and bias.
Offensive terminology turns up in many surprising places. I was asked recently to review a paper written by a group of medical professionals on the topic of sports for youth with disabilities. The title of the article had those loathed words, "special needs and physically challenged." My dear friend, June Kailes, Disability Policy Consultant, would have exploded at the sight of these words had she reviewed the paper. As she always reminds me, if society would get its act together and make the environment barrier-free and disability- and aging-friendly, no one would be challenged! And aren't we all special in some respects? We each consist of a different configuration of 30,000-plus genes, which makes each of us "special" in our own right.
Here is another example of unfortunate wording in a statement that was being prepared to be disseminated to thousands of physicians. Fortunately, I was able to edit the document before it went to press, although I'm not entirely sure the medical association will agree with my admonition of its inappropriate wording:
For the provider who chooses an enthusiastic involvement in this pursuit, there are opportunities for fostering direct participation in various types of special programs or supporting advocacy for this unique segment of the ... population.
Wow! If that isn't a loaded sentence! No doctor should have the right to "choose" if one of his or her patients should be physically active. Doctors should recommend physical activity to ALL their patients! And why are people with disabilities "unique?" And why do they have to participate in "special" sports and physical activity programs and not any program offered to anyone else? Let's hope that my suggestions were heeded.
These issues hit close to home after visiting my niece in a New York City hospital where she continues to recuperate from a bout with multiple sclerosis. I want to remind her personal trainer who will resume working with her in a few weeks when she returns to her Greenwich Village apartment that she is not special, abnormal, different, differently-abled or physically challenged. She is a dynamic young 24-year-old who must work her way through recovery and restoration of strength, balance and cardiovascular endurance to the best of her ability. The trainer's job is to treat her like any other client and go about making her feel no different than anyone else who may need certain adaptations to compensate for the weakness that often accompanies a long bout in the hospital, whether from an exacerbation of MS or from surgery or several weeks of chemotherapy. It's all on the same continuum.
Trainers and other health professionals who have little experience working with people with disabilities must go about their business trying to get their clients to their maximum performance level. The quality of a personal trainer can be measured by how successful he or she is in treating clients with disabilities no differently from the rest of the club membership. Perhaps these trainers and other industry professionals would benefit from starting their own collections of friendly - or at least non-discriminatory - phrases.