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The power of language

norman-gary-col-sigAs a lawyer and as a blind person partnered with a service animal, I realize the power of words.

I recently heard a form of certain illegal words by a driver when returning from a medical appointment with my service animal. As I entered the vehicle, he stated that “. . . You did not tell me you have a dog.” Fortunately, I managed the potential access denial on-the-spot, resolving the interaction with a negative driver rating.

As chair of the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights, I delivered remarks during Women’s History Month, reflecting upon the social courage of my wife, a member of a mixed non-disability/disability marriage, who has encountered discrimination in our society by my side. As such the legal significance, as well as the richness of language, is on my mind.

Language or conversation relies on the choice of this word or that word. In Act II, Scene II of Romeo & Juliet, beautiful Juliet asks the following question that most of us should know: “What’s in a name?” Specifically, one of my friends recently reminded me that the Americans with Disability Act and its progeny (as well as all civil rights legislation) chiefly rely upon the power of words.

The frailty of the physical being, notwithstanding the strength of the soul, means that most of us will fall within the word “disability.” Arguably, the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 comprises the sole civil rights law ever to nullify a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. During the 1990s, as well as the early 2000s, courts narrowly defined the legal definition of disability, curtailing coverage and, by extension, rights. To address this, Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, restoring the breath and the depth of the words utilized in what is supposed to be a remedial statute.

My father and I advocated for my accommodations when I was in law school in Cleveland, Ohio, “giving words” in strong Norman fashion to the then-dean. In the late 1990s, I requested to record classes with my clunky tape recorder. My law professor did not prove a master of words – inclusive words.

As an example of the biases, I have encountered as a person with a disability, a law professor attempted to suggest that I would illegally record the class sessions, either to help students cheat on exams or perhaps sell the material. Many law students with disabilities must continuously not only navigate a rigorous graduate professional education but also advocate for the very ability to study.

Etiquette rules

The older that I become, the more I enforce the etiquette rules. A lifetime of interacting with a range of bizarre situations will force anyone to become grouchy. Appropriate etiquette demands that one utilizes “people’s first language.” If for some reason a server at a fancy bistro encounters a guide dog navigating off course into the kitchen, they should note the following examples.

Improper: Hey, blind person. You and your dog are in the kitchen.

More proper: Sir, I love that you and your dog have visited this bistro. I know you are a person with a disability, partnered with that wonderful guide dog. However, you do need to stay out of the kitchen. Not that the latter has ever occurred.

How many terms have I heard these past 20 years since first matching with a furry friend? “Hey, I love your seeing-eye dog.” “I love your guide dog.” “I love your assistance dog.” So on and so forth. In actuality, one should use the title “service animal.” The ADA points to a guide dog as a specific subset or example of a disability-dog relationship that the law protects.

Implicit bias training has increasingly occurred in our society. As commission chair, I believe that this proves to be an important tool in ensuring equity. However, this has not always included a specific disability focus. I urge readers – specifically lawyers – to think about the words they use to talk about disability.

In conclusion, lawyers must recall their power when wielding words; committing to apply as well as empower the correct words in law and personal relationships.

Gary C. Norman is chair of the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights.