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Diversity Equality Inclusion - August 27, 2021

Words Matter: Challenging Ableism and Ageism in Our Use of Language

by Kathie Miller

I recently spent two afternoons with Goodwin House coworkers as we came together to participate in Diversity, Equality and Inclusion (DEI) training. We covered a lot of ground, thanks to a gifted facilitator who guided us through careful conversations about generational differences, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and ableism.

Ableism is defined as discrimination or prejudice against individuals with mental or physical disabilities. As we were discussing ableism, we were asked to consider a list of phrases and words. The list included words such as crazy, nuts, stupid and lame. It also included phrases such as “emotionally crippled” and “tone deaf”.

These words and phrases can be heard often in everyday conversation. Most of us have probably used them without realizing they cause harm to others, without realizing that we are participating in discrimination when we use them.

These words and phrases are a form of discrimination because they are used to describe something as negative or abnormal, or they are used in a joking manner.

During this group training, we were asked to think about our use of language, specifically as it relates to ableism. As I spent time with this list, it occurred to me that we could (and should) consider another list, one that might include the following:

  • senior moment
  • over the hill
  • early bird special
  • golden years
  • past your prime
  • young at heart
  • put out to pasture

This list reflects another ism that lurks in our everyday language: ageism!

How many times might we joke about our own aging process? How much time and effort do we spend on making ourselves appear younger? Why do we think twice before sharing our age with others?

Aging is part of life, yet in U.S. culture, we often make fun of the aging process or we treat older adults almost as though they are children. Yet ageism can work both ways!

Many of us have probably experienced times when we were told we were too young to do something or not taken seriously for the skills, knowledge or perspectives we might offer. Either way, ageism is something we should think and talk about so that we can work to combat it, too.

We all know the importance of language. We use it to communicate with one another. What we sometimes don’t realize is how language evolves over time. Right now, we live during a time when we’re learning a lot about a lot of things, with language being an important aspect of that learning process.

I hope we can all gain greater awareness of how our use of language and choice of words can have a profound impact on others. Together, let’s find better ways to describe things so that we don’t perpetuate discrimination. Words matter.

Actions & Resources:

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As Corporate Director of Marketing & Communications, Kathie Miller provides strategic guidance and tactical support for all areas of Goodwin House. She writes, edits and manages The Good Life blog and newsletter. Kathie joined GHI in 2014 after nearly 15 years at NPR, where she honed her skills in brand and reputation management, content marketing and internal communications. Originally from Pennsylvania, Kathie has slowly come to realize she’s lived in Arlington for more than half her life and should call herself a Virginian. She enjoys the outdoors and brings her rescue dog, Remi, to work every day.

About the Diversity, Equality and Inclusion (DEI) Committee: We are a group of staff and residents who together serve a mission to educate, embrace and empower a workplace of diversity, equality and inclusion. Our vision is to seek open and honest communication and collaboration that will inform and celebrate the cultural, ethnic and sexual orientation of all members of our staff without bias.

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