Blog Bonus: Healing Words

Okay, so after the last post I got to thinking: we talk a lot on this blog about what people shouldn’t say and how negative words impact people with disabilities and our perceptions of them. I don’t think we talk about positive, healing words enough.

So let’s say you’re a doctor, a nurse, a therapist, an expert in some part of disability, what have you. You face disability every day, and you know how stressful or downright demoralizing living with it can become. Maybe you even have to use some of the words we talked about because they’re medically or technically correct, or because no substitutes exist. How can you inject more positivity into your words? What are some good ways we can talk about disability?

I’m not a professional, but I had a few ideas. Even if your evaluation must use negative words to be technically correct, you can say things like:

“I want to help your child/loved one reach his or her full potential.”
“This is a projection, not a predictor of the future.”
“How can I help you?”
“What are your questions and concerns?”

You can also say, especially to the person with a disability:
“Tell me what your strengths are/what you like to do.”
“How would you like to complete this task?” This would work well in therapy. If the person must practice some life skill, give him or her choices on how and when, and how long, to do it. Many therapists unknowingly push goals and tasks when the person is already tired and frustrated.
“How are you feeling today?” Then listen to the answer. “Fine” is not an answer, and you need to build trust to get a real one.

When a PWD, his or her parent, or a loved one comes to you scared or discouraged, or says, “I can’t do anything!” say something like,
“I know it feels that way. What’s got you the most frustrated right now?”
“Look how far you’ve come.” Then name some things the PWD can do now that he or she could not before, no matter how small.
“You are, and will be, able to do more than you think.”
“What people do is not as important as who they are.”

If a treatment or a plan does not seem to be working, instead of giving up and saying, “He’ll never do this/be this,” say,

“Okay, now we know one way that doesn’t work. What should we do next?”
“I don’t know what to do; let me find someone who will know.”
“Do you have any ideas to help your loved one respond more effectively?”
“Why don’t we take a break from this treatment/plan/goal for a while?”
“What are we really trying to accomplish?” Sometimes, PWDs and their loved ones hang on tightly to a specific goal, like walking or talking or meeting some standard. If that’s to help the person reach his or her full potential, fine. But sometimes we must step back and say, “Am I doing this because I want to somehow ‘fix’ my loved one?” If yes, it may be time to stop.

If a PWD expresses anger or frustration, or tells you “no,” you could say:

“Can you tell me why you’re upset?”
“Okay, let’s cool down for awhile.”
“We can try this again later.”
“Show me how you feel.” This may be crucial for people who don’t communicate with their mouths; signing, drawing, or using assistive technology may help.

Things Every PWD Needs to Hear:

Really, these are things every person needs to hear, disability or not. But I don’t think PWDs hear them enough, because we’re so busy trying to fix them that we sometimes forget they are people. So here we go:

“I love you.” (Every day, people. EVERY. DAY.)
“Good job!” (This is a summation of the authentic praise PWDs should be receiving).
“You’re beautiful/handsome.” (Too many people, including PWDs, rarely or never hear this because people erroneously think disability is ugly).
“I’m proud of you.” (No matter what the accomplishment, say this).
“I’m sorry.” (This one is crucial. How many times do we do things to people with disabilities, in the name of working on them, without thinking about how they feel)?
“What do you need?” (Ask, don’t just jump in and help).
“What do you want/what would you like to do?” (How many TAB people order for persons with disabilities in restaurants, take them to activities without their input, and assume they have no real preferences? Stop it–and ask this instead).
“What are your dreams? If you could be anything, what would it be?” (Open the world of possibilities! Sadly, many PWDs have never been asked this question, so they don’t know the answer. If you teach a PWD, early on and throughout life, that they have more options than “special places” and sheltered jobs, they will believe it. Teach them to dream BIG!)

Go forth and heal today.



  1. Thank you for including this bonus. I was thinking of asking if you’d be willing to write about some positive alternatives to common medical terminology. I didn’t even have to ask 🙂

  2. Indeed. Sometimes I forget, when you bring up a negative situation, you need to give positive alternatives where possible. Of course, I’m not a part of the medical system so I can’t “tell them what to do”, per se, but they do need to know, a lot of what they’re doing is not helping anyone. In fact, it’s encouraging ableism. The more we use positive alternatives, the more accepted disability will be.

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