As someone who has been disabled almost all her life, Amber Cheek knows how a seemingly kind word or helpful gesture from well-intentioned people can be subtly demeaning.
As the director of accessibility at the University of Missouri-Columbia, Cheek also knows that education and understanding can go a long way toward knowing the right words to say and bridging what she sees is often an information and generation gap.
“It’s not about having an encyclopedia in your head,” Cheek says. “It’s about being able to approach diversity in an inclusive way.”
She has tried to get that attitude across by using a new document that spells out what language might be seen as inappropriate or even offensive to some members of minority groups, even though it may be accepted or at least tolerated by others. The goal, Cheek said, is having people be “respectfully curious.”
“There is a lot of uncertainty among people about whether they should speak up when someone uses a term that isn’t the most current one that they identify with,” she said.
“But the goal isn’t to create an environment where people are always correcting each other, or where people feel stifled. The goal is to increase understanding of diversity. And the biggest struggle is that the language changes over time.”
The lesson hasn’t been received well by everyone. After a recent session on campus, and an online article about it, reactions ranged from understanding to complaints that people on the Mizzou campus shouldn’t be expected to become what one person called “the PC Gestapo.”
Another reaction came from Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University who was recently cleared in a Title IX investigation involving an essay she published about what she called “sexual paranoia” on campus. The situation escalated into complaints about what she had written and whether she should have written the essay at all.
In an email, after she had been given a copy of the Mizzou document on inclusive terminology, Kipnis responded:
“I hope Missouri faculty have the balls to push back against campus bureaucrats trying to tell them what is and isn’t offensive, and I very much hope my saying that offends someone.”
Cheek wants people to view the situation in a different way.
“A lot of people see discussions of inclusive language as people trying to be the bad language police,” she said. “But really, I think that will pass over time. I think that as our universities and as our workplaces become every more diverse, people will become more and more comfortable with diversity.
“It’s about being open-minded, being willing to have conversations with your co-workers and being able to approach diversity in an inclusive way. If you do that, even if you don’t know the perfect word right off the tip of your tongue when you first meet a person, it will be all right. You’ll have a conversation. You’ll learn what the person’s identity is, what they prefer, and from then on, a big part of it is just understanding that diversity is a part of the fabric of who we are. It's just a matter of taking that first step to being more inclusive. You don't have to know everything.”
The key to the situations she is trying to address, Cheek says, is to let differences dissolve in a more natural way rather than let them become barriers or rigid guidelines.
“I think that people are making a bigger deal of it than it is,” she said. “I think a little bit of knowledge goes a long way.
“And I think that when people learn to be more comfortable discussing differences, and getting to know the person rather than trying to know the perfect word to describe the person, things will really improve. That’s kind of the goal.”
Cheek brings a lifetime of experience to her job, which she began last year after earning a law degree from Mizzou in 2012. She describes her self as a congenital amputee, who lost a foot shortly after birth and has used a prosthesis ever since. Her world expanded when she left her home in Georgia — a place she calls “a very rural, Southern, Appalachian town where everyone looked the same and went to the same church” — and went away to a big state university campus.
“I had this amazing awakening,” Cheek said, “where I felt like I was part of a community, and I felt supported. I felt like I could advocate for myself. I learned so much.”
She used that knowledge to stand up for herself in an early job after college.
“I worked at a summer camp,” she recalled, “When a co-worker found out that I was an amputee, he said, ‘Wow, I would have assumed that someone like you couldn’t do this, because it involves so much walking around.’ He meant absolutely no harm in that, but I was very hurt.
“Because it was my first leadership position out of college, and I really wanted to be a leader. I didn’t want to be that girl with a disability and have that be the most important thing about me.”
Conversation, Cheek found, was the antidote.
“He learned that I was a really avid hiker,” she said, “and that walking around the college campus was not difficult for me at all. And his view of disability really expanded. He stopped making comments like that, and I can only assume that going forward, when he went into his jobs after college, he was more aware of people with disabilities because he worked with one and got to know someone.”
Trying to gain that kind of understanding, she said, can make all the difference. Often, Cheek added, a simple question can help decide whether offering help is really helpful, and not helping is respectful, not callous.
“Every blind person I have ever met has a story in which a very well-intentioned, good-hearted sighted person grabbed their hand at an intersection and took them across the street and left them someplace they never meant to go, completely lost,” she said. “And a lot of wheelchair users say so as well.
“If they do need help, they’ll ask for it. People with disabilities want to be independent. They want to be on an equal footing with everyone else. If you have a co-worker that’s constantly asking to help you all the time, it’s good-intentioned, but oftentimes, it makes you feel like a little kid, and no one wants to feel like a little kid at work.”
Keep up with changing language
One good way to avoid that kind of trap, Cheek said, is to keep up with the current language. For example, in most cases, the term to use is disabled, not handicapped. And it's better to use Asian or Asian-American, not Oriental. It’s all part of Mizzou’s Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative .
But learning a list of the right thing to say isn’t always easy.
“One of the things we emphasize in our training is that everything comes down to personal preference,” she said. “There’s no perfect way to always use the right word, because two people who are in the exact same group could have very different preferences of language. I prefer the term disability. Someone else might prefer the term differently abled, and more power to them.”
Sexual orientation can be a particularly difficult area to navigate, she said. To help, her presentation includes a whimsical graphic called the Gender Unicorn, outlining and defining the intricacies of gender identity.
“It is a good tool for understanding gender orientation and gender issues,” Cheek said. “It’s a very useful took, and I think it’s a very simple thing that people can use in discussion.”
And discussion, she emphasized, is key to making a lot situations that may seem difficult become easier. It helps dissipate what she used to call the “force field” – an invisible barrier that made camaraderie almost impossible.
“Sometimes when people would find out I had a disability,” Cheek said, “there would be like a force field between me and them, and they’d feel like they couldn’t get to know me. I think that’s particularly problematic in the work place, because you need to be able to work with everyone, regardless of difference. I think it’s important to factor that into the workplace at Mizzou.
“A lot of people are so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they don’t actually talk to people at all. That’s not the way to go about it.”
For education news, follow Dale Singer on Twitter: @dalesinger