You’ve all read those articles.
The article about the woman who ‘lost her battle’ with cancer, or the ‘brave’ man ‘struggling’ with a progressive disease; articles that are touted as awareness-raising pieces, but are, in fact, thinly-veiled exploitations of serious medical conditions for the sake of views/clicks/shares.
But how much do these pieces actually help in raising awareness? Do we really need to sensationalise in order to raise awareness? Are the people featured being treated fairly? How can we use better language to promote equality?
This is the first in a series of posts navigating the somewhat murky waters of the language of healthcare communications. This language is, after all, at the heart of what we do. Our words carry power, and we are long-overdue for a lexical overhaul.
It’s commonplace for the media – and even healthcare professionals – to use victimising words such as ‘suffering’ or ‘battling’. This emotive language is thought to elucidate feelings of compassion, but in reality it serves to reinforce the notion that people with rare or complex medical conditions are passively living their lives in hopelessness. It’s sympathy, not empathy.
In fact, a study by the University of Lancaster found that the ‘battle language’ frequently employed when talking about people with cancer can cause feelings of failure or guilt among those who are terminally ill, resulting in feelings of personal responsibility in people whose condition deteriorates.
Similarly, people with rare or complex medical conditions and disabilities are often portrayed as ‘brave’, or ‘inspirational’. Turns out, putting people on pedestals isn’t empowering either. Indeed, as someone with a rare condition and resulting disability, I’ve been ‘pedestalled’ a few times; I remember clearly a near stranger telling me how inspirational I was because I ‘persevered despite’ my health condition. Persevered? I was under the (clearly faulty) illusion that I was simply living my life.
Dare we give this behaviour a name? The term ‘inspiration porn’ was coined by Stella Young – ‘porn’ because of the objectification of one group of people for the benefit of another. Inspiration porn is rife on social media and with a particular brand of news media. Admittedly, it’s a better state of affairs than the dark days when people with disabilities were vilified, but, unfortunately, we’ve completely bypassed equality. This way of thinking actually builds barriers to equality. A pedestal is just another way of reinforcing a comfortable separation for observers and well-meaning communicators.
As communicators, and as people, language is our most powerful tool; words can be vehicles for empowering change, or bastions of catastrophe. If you’ve ever had a follow-up letter from a consultant, youwill have been referred to as a ‘sufferer’. When you read that word, did you feel empowered? Or a little miffed, and let down? Though misrepresentative language is the ‘norm’, it doesn’t make it right. ‘Pity party’ communications are an especially cruel form of laziness.
Nuance and presenting people as they actually are may take a little more work – but that’s what we’re here to do. We have a duty to our audiences to not betray them with our words, and we must lead by example for the industry at large. This is a call to action – bin your battle talk, and pull down those pedestals. We are content managers, we are writers, we are advocates and designers – we create what other people see. It is our responsibility to create the content we wish to see.
By Lucy Pratt