(Photo by Robin Higgins for Pixabay)
It started off like any other event. There was food set up at one end of the room, and there was time for networking while everyone grabbed a plate and settled in. Then the speeches started.
The organization hosting the event spoke first, then introduced the first of several speakers.
And then, like most of the events I go to, someone in a leadership position at a local nonprofit stood up and spoke about what they do and the people they serve. They talked about “the homeless” that they provide services to, and the employment program for “addicts” that included a lot of accountability to “make sure that they’re doing what they say they’re doing.”
Sadly, this is not an aberration. I’ve heard a version of this speech, in which a high level executive of a nonprofit uses stigmatizing language to talk about what they do and the people they serve, more times than I can count.
I know that language is constantly evolving, and the way we talk about things now is not the same as it was even just five or 10 years ago. Substance use, for example, evolved from addiction to substance abuse to substance use, all in an effort to use non-stigmatizing language. As language evolves, it can be hard to keep up.
But, if you’re leading a nonprofit organization that has a mission dedicated to helping a certain population of people, I expect you to keep up with best practice language for that population.
If you’re working with people with substance use disorder, I expect you to know that there are studies that confirm that hearing the term “substance abuser” automatically made those surveyed assume that the “abuser” was less likely to benefit from treatment and more likely to benefit from punishment, be socially threatening, and be blamed for their substance use disorder.
If you’re supporting people experiencing homelessness, I expect you to know that referring to those individuals as “homeless” or “the homeless” is going to lead your audience to make some immediate and negative assumptions about those individuals.
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Your job, as a leader, is to inspire and motivate your supporters. It’s not to add to the stigma that your clients face every day.
Further, it’s your job to help build self confidence and autonomy for the people you serve. Stigma doesn’t just apply to the general public that isn’t affected by an issue; it affects the way people think about themselves if they’re affected by an issue too. Calling your clients “addicts” or “drug abusers” is going to reinforce all of the self doubt they themselves carry, and further their shame and guilt over their disease. It doesn’t help, it hurts.
I could go on for days about program design and harm reduction principles, but really it comes down to this: Philadelphia nonprofit leaders, please do better.
Find a guide that helps you steer clear of stigmatizing language. Pay attention to how you’re talking about your clients and how that can harm them. Read up on person first language. Give your clients the respect they deserve as fellow human beings.
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