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Refuse vs. Choose

Why language matters


How do words inform our practice as educators, support people, family members, and friends?

  • Saying a person "refuses" to do something focuses on compliance. It frames the person in a negative light and makes assumptions about their intentions.

  • Saying a person "chooses" to do or not do something focuses on self-determination, autonomy, and decision-making. It is a starting point for collaborative conversations.

How about when someone with a disability gets a job? We have a choice in how we describe this, too ... "Sam earned a job" vs. "Sam was given a job" ... in which scenario does Sam have power and autonomy? Which description assumes Sam didn't actually earn the job?


We inadvertently make assumptions, ignore autonomy, misinform those around us, and model disrespectful language every day. How can we do better?

​Do This

Not This

Give power to the person:

Sam earned their job

Take power from the person:

Sam was given their job

Use choice-oriented words:

Alex chose or decided to not sit next to Sam

Focus on compliance:

Alex refused to sit next to Sam

Use action-oriented words:

Taylor left the group to explore

Focus on outdated ideas:

Taylor eloped

Use relationally appropriate terms:

My students have extensive support needs

Use relationally inappropriate terms:

My friends or pals or buddies have extensive support needs

​Use chronologically appropriate terms:

I support adults with disabilities OR

I support disabled adults

Infantilize people:

My buddy or pal has a disability OR

My buddy or pal is disabled

Talk to people:

Harper, what do you want for lunch?

Talk about people:

What does Harper want for lunch?

There are many, many other examples of how to use thoughtful, intentional language in order to respect and empower others. Modeling language for others is the most powerful way to make change in this area - rather than lecturing someone, show them how it's done!


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"Refuse vs. Choose"

“Language is power, in ways more literal than most people think. When we speak, we exercise the power of language to transform reality. Why don't more of us realize the connection between language and power?” – Julia Penelope
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