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Don't Call Me Inspirational

November 20, 2018
Mark Carawan, Chief Compliance Officer, Citi

All of us can point to numerous hardships or challenges we've had to overcome to get to where we are today. This is true both professionally and personally. Part of what unites us is our shared experience striving to make the most of the circumstances – whether positive or negative – that we've been forced to confront head on.

It seems almost mundane to spell out this common journey. Doing so, however, helps me put things into perspective and consider the basic fact that everyone struggles and overcomes. Another more visceral reminder of that fact occurred during the launch of our newest affinity – Disability Affinity: Enabling Diverse Abilities – which my co-lead Jennifer Lowney has also reflected on in her own blog post.

During the Q&A portion of the event, a member of the audience posed a question to our panelists about language. More specifically, he asked about the importance of using "people first" language, or language that emphasizes the individual rather than their disability. U.S. Paralympian Scout Bassett gave a powerful response about the need to be mindful of our language, which immediately prompted me to think about the power of words when we communicate with and about people with diverse abilities.

Despite having earned much-deserved recognition for her participation in the Rio Games in 2016, Scout revealed that many Paralympic athletes generally do not like being called "inspirational." As this started to sink in, I glanced around the room and noticed that more than a few people also appeared to be taken aback. Scout continued, further explaining that adjectives like inspirational, or courageous or heroic, assume that an athlete who wears a prosthetic, for example, couldn't achieve as rich a quality of life as an athlete without a prosthetic. Everyone struggles and overcomes, but why don't we call people without disabilities "inspirational"?

I've never thought of myself as being inspiring or heroic for simply living my life. I certainly wouldn't want others to think about or refer to me that way, either. A little self-reflection goes a long way, and really gets to the crux of the issue.

What really matters when talking to or about someone with a disability is just that: remembering that you are talking about an individual. Use language you would be comfortable with were it you being talked about. Language that leaves room for you and others to learn more about the individual beyond their disability, and at the same time gives them an opportunity to define themselves as they choose.

This notion of being mindful of language in reference to people with disabilities is still new, complex and evolving. As a result, it's crucial to remain open to learning and be willing to ask for a person's own preferences if you're not sure.

Our affinity is also here to help. We hope that together we can continue to work towards a more respectful, open and inclusive culture across our firm.

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