I know a lot of you academic types. You write things, it gets published. Maybe it gets read, maybe it doesn’t. What if I told you that a document about categories for an economic report would be used 25 years later throughout the world, and continue the use of outmoded and derogatory naming for disabled people?
Last week Ian got invited to a volunteer event with the City of Kelowna. It was to launch a volunteer initiative for Canada150 to log the volunteer hours of Canadians throughout this year and to inspire them to volunteer more. When he told me about it, I thought it might be a way to promote the two organizations I’m a board member with – the MS Society and Disability Alliance BC. I went to the website for the event, and that’s where things started to come unstuck.
I logged in and needed to add my organizations. MS Society – no problem. Disability Alliance BC? Missing. There was a process to add an organization, so I started to do that. First step – what category is the organization? The only one that remotely ‘fit’ was “Services for the Handicapped”.
Handicapped?!? In 2017?!?
I sent an email to the organization behind the initiative, Volinspire. A speedy response offered to change it to “Services for Special Needs and Diverse Abilities” – a step backwards to a couple of euphemisms as far as I’m concerned. An email discussion ensued where I gave my case for people/persons with disabilities. I find it bizarre to have to explain we have a Minister for Persons with Disabilities, Canada is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the main advocacy organization in Canada is called the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, but, for some reason, people here in Kelowna think that “diverse abilities” sounds nicer!
You may think it’s strange that I am arguing to be called disabled, that that isn’t something you would expect. Here’s how to think about it. What is it that disables me? Is it being in a wheelchair, or is it that I live in a society that isn’t designed with my needs in mind? I’m not sure if I’ve shared my favourite video on this subject with you, but if not, here it is:
Get it? Good.
One of the emails from Volinspire said that the form I was completing on the website was filled with data that they had received from Canada150, which came from a StatsCanada website, which in turn came from the UN, from something called ICNPO – the International Classification of Non-Profit Organizations. A few more turns with Mr Google and I discovered that this classification had been written by Johns Hopkins Centre for Civil Society Studies, in conjunction with the UN. How strange that the UN would be promoting the use of the term handicapped?!? And the ICNPO was being used everywhere – the term handicapped had been embedded into countless documents worldwide.
An email was sent to Johns Hopkins – and a really speedy reply came.
This is where the long reach of research and documents comes in.
This classification system was written 25 years ago. Its purpose is to help statisticians to compare work in nonprofit and for-profit organizations and when it was written, it drew heavily on an even older classification system. I guess we are lucky that it said handicapped and nothing worse! The people who wrote it had no idea that it would be used, 25 years later, for the public to add their organization to a volunteer initiative. Here’s what Johns Hopkins had to say
I should mention that ICNPO is in no way intended to dictate or endorse specific terminology to be used by nonprofits themselves in either their names or the descriptions of their programs/missions. It is, rather, intended to allow statistical agencies across many different countries and cultures to have a common brand definition of the fields of activity in which nonprofits operate.
Hmmm. But once it was out there, there was no way to check how it was being used.
They also told me that they are in the final stages of presenting the revisions to it to the UN, and the term that will be used is – guess what – yup – persons with disabilities. It won’t be available until the end of the year – and how will it filter through the myriad of uses the old language has been used for in the last 25 years. I’m sure we will be discovering this use of this old report for many years to come.
I forwarded it to Volinspire. Their response? They’re going to have a discussion and let me know what they decide.