Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or so it has been so often said. I would submit there’s a corollary: sometimes ugliness is something that everyone can see.
Here’s a case in point. A few days ago, I was visiting a podiatry related website. It was not one belonging to a current Foster Web Marketing client, but I’m still not going to reveal the source and embarrass the owner. What I saw was this:
I have no objection to the advice dispensed on this page, but I’m outraged by how the author uses words. You see, the patient here isn’t called a patient, he’s “a diabetic.” His whole personhood has been reduced to an illness.
Specialists in dealing with this illness agree. The organization Diabetes Australia, for instance, endorses the phrases person with diabetes or person living with diabetes. Its position statement, “A new language for diabetes,” reminds us that “the term ‘diabetic’ defines the individual as their health condition. It is better to emphasize the person’s ability to live with diabetes. Labeling someone as ‘diabetic’ positions diabetes as the defining factor of their life.”
This Is Not Political Correctness Gone Wild
People should not be reduced to their ailments. It’s a way to depersonalize disease victims—to rob them of personal agency and autonomy. We went through something like this in the mid-1980s, until the phrasing “persons with AIDS” became widely accepted. Please, if you are writing content about diabetes, be mindful that your readers may resent being reduced to “diabetics.”
The same reasoning applies to almost every disorder or disease. For instance, the Global Down Syndrome Foundation is adamant in supporting phrasing such as people (or children, or adults, or individuals) with Down syndrome instead of older terms that are now seen as insensitive.
Of course, whenever the discussion turns to advice on how to address others, there will be some people who get huffy. “Nobody has the right to tell me what I can and cannot say,” they assert. Indeed, that’s true. The U.S. culture wars from the late 1980s onward only spread resentment and wrath over political correctness. You are absolutely free to use whatever language you wish on your personal or business website, even if you recognize your words will distress some readers.
But I’d like to urge you to restrain yourself, for two important reasons:
- It’s not a matter of political correctness, but of civility. Language can hurt. If you’re deliberately choosing to use words that you know will assault some readers’ feelings, you are showing—quite publicly—lack of compassion, respect, and courtesy. That becomes a distinguishing characteristic both for your business and your professional reputation.
- It’s counterproductive to what you’re trying to accomplish with your website. Your site is online advertising designed to attract patients, clients, or customers. If your choice of language drives readers away, you’re undermining your own marketing efforts. Is that really the best use of your time and money?
Listen Up, Lawyers: This Message Isn’t Just for Medical Professionals. You Do it Too
Our society stigmatizes certain conditions and characteristics. That’s unfair and unkind. Unfortunately, you don’t have the power to reverse that bigotry. The best you can do is stop labeling people with terms that provoke bigoted reactions.
Although our examples so far have come from the medical field, it’s easy enough to find examples of other online professionals who—carelessly or callously—use offensive terms in their web content. Here is just a partial list of adjectives that some people have found offensive when used to describe a class of people:
- Dumb (in the sense of unable to speak)
- Illegal or the phrase “illegal alien”
- Mentally ill
- Poor (in the sense of indigent)
- Senior (as in the phrase “senior citizen”)
- Workman (as in the phrase “workman’s compensation”)
Some of these terms may be defensible when used in a professional context or as true adjectives. In every case, though, you should use these words cautiously, with due consideration of whether the term might give offense. Remember, the judgment of whether something is objectionable is made by the viewer or hearer; just as your audience cannot dictate the words you use, you don’t get to decide how your audience will react to your language.
Share Your Language Stories With Us
Have you ever had a run-in with a client over a word she thought was derogatory? Are we being too sensitive about this issue? What steps have you implemented to keep hurtful language off your website? Please share your experiences in the comments section on this page; our whole community would be interested in your thoughts.