Antonia Del Vecchio
Human communication has always fascinated me, and when I decided to become a relational psychotherapist, the relevance was immediate. Before addressing the topic of ‘inclusive language’, it is necessary to look at communication itself.
What are the characteristics of human communication?
Many interesting reflections on this issue can be found in the work of the psychologist Watzlawick, who in 1971 published Pragmatics of Human Communication. After many years of study, Watzlawick formulated five essential assumptions (or axioms) on which human communication is based. He also argued that all communication presupposes a commitment, and this is what defines a relationship. Three of these axioms are particularly interesting, let’s take a look at them.
1. One cannot not communicate;
2. In every type of communcation there are two levels: content and relationship;
3. Human beings communicate with both digital (verbal) and analog (non-verbal) modalities.
The first axiom underlines that it is not possible to not communicate: all our behaviours are ways of communicating, even if we do not literally ‘say’ anything. Every choice we make communicates something to ourselves and others. The axiom that is most closely connected to the use and significance that words can have is certainly the second one: whether we say the same thing with a raised voice or with a smile completely changes the meaning of the exchange. In my work I have often come had conversations with people with disabilities who were able to laugh at their own condition and get a smile out of their interlocutors, thereby overcoming the risk of misunderstandings arising or offence being taken. We also know that when we interact with each other, it is easy to yield to the influence of our symbolic, conventional and signalling systems according to our culture of reference (L. M. Anolli). This brings us to the fourth axiom: many of us are aware that we have both verbal and non-verbal language. But what do we mean by non-verbal? Usually the non-verbal is associated with posture, but it is an understatement to limit ourselves to this. The position of the body, gestures, but also facial expressions, vocal inflection, as well as the sequence, rhythm and cadence of words are also important. Based on these assumptions, we can reflect on how we relate to each other and why some words carry different weight based on how we use them. Furthermore, I believe that there is no precise vocabulary, because in some cases it is not even necessary for words to be spoken; equally, communication can be discriminatory. However, here are some of the most common words that are misused: ‘disabled’, ‘invalid’, ‘handicapped’, ‘paraplegic’, ‘dyslexic’, ‘autistic’. These definitions associate the person solely with the lack that characterises them. Elsewhere, I have talked about the ICF (International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health) which introduces the Biopsychosocial model and which enables a new view of disability and health. This model ‘retires’ the old definition of disability, according to which it is characterised by the pathology/diagnosis of the individual, replacing it with a holistic view of the person. The emphasis is on the overall value of the human being, where the ‘diagnosis’ is only a part of the person. We often hear the expression ‘differently able’. The ICF has shown that disability is created by an individual’s interactions and the level of their participation with their environment. So we are all disabled, as anyone can find themselves experiencing a situation that requires different ways of performing a task. We must make a ‘switch’. First we could start addressing people by their first and last names. Inclusive language talks about persons with a disability, workers with a disability or students with learning difficulties. The term ‘person’ was used by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which has become the international standard. This term is neutral, has neither positive nor negative characteristics and has a universal meaning for all human beings. Despite long-standing commitments to the creation of inclusive contexts, even today there is a tendency to use obsolete and, at times, offensive language. This includes language used by public figures and this, unfortunately, feeds into creating an even more distorted view. This aspect is defined very clearly in a famous passage from Civil Speaking (Parlare civile): Words can be walls or bridges. They can create distance or help understand problems. The same words used in different contexts can be appropriate, confusing or even offensive. When communicating, therefore, we need precision and awareness of the meaning, of the sense, of words. […] It is not easy, but it is necessary for ‘civil speaking’. (Redattore sociale, 2013, p. VII and VIII).
As Diversity Manager and Psychotherapist at Synergie Italia, I plan, for our clients, courses to educate employees about inclusion. In fact, I like to talk about education and culture as well as raising awareness. Prejudice arises precisely out of ignorance, understood as ‘non-knowledge’ of the subject, and it is up to us insiders to offer companies the tools to take this evolutionary step. The way we are experiencing the pandemic has slowed down our rhythms and allowed us to pause and examine the importance of including diversity. In fact, there has been an increase in opportunities for companies to reflect on and exchange views on best practices. We have a long road ahead of us, but my motto is, ‘In the realm of ideas everything depends on enthusiasm … in the real world everything is based on perseverance’ (Goethe).