By Dr. Daniel K. Zondervan
Earlier in my research career, I submitted a proposal to test the efficacy of a new technology for stroke recovery. The basic plan was to have one group of individuals do their therapy one way, and the other group do their therapy another way, and then see which therapy worked better. It was a large proposal, and several people contributed text for it, but ultimately it was my responsibility to submit the final version.
I mention this because the proposal mistakenly referred to the people we planned on recruiting for the study as “stroke victims” in a few locations. The group reviewing our proposal noticed this and called me out on it. As a result, the lesson stuck. Ever since then, I’ve made triply sure to use the term “survivor” when referring to individuals that have had a stroke.
It Is More than Political Correctness
There is a lot made of the words we use these days, and for good reason. The way we refer to a group of people matters, and we should strive to be as inclusive and inoffensive as possible in our speech. Not to mention the dangers of the “nocebo effect” (something that’s been discussed at length on this blog), which makes it clear that negative language can indeed have a real negative effect on a person’s well-being.
However, this is not the reason I wanted to write this article. As important as political correctness is, it is not the main reason why I choose to avoid the term “victim.”
What “Survivor” Really Means
As my career has progressed, I’ve been blessed with continued opportunities to interact with stroke survivors. And let me tell you, they live up to the name.
These are not reality show ‘survivors’ putting on an act. Not even close. No, these are “I Will Survive” survivors, belting their strength from the depths of their soul. This is Rocky in the 15th round, or Matt Damon stranded on Mars, if you want a more modern reference.
I have been ceaselessly astounded at the strength, resilience, and fortitude of the individuals I have met that are fighting for their recovery after stroke. Yes they have suffered, but they have chosen to press on. That is what a survivor is. That is who they are.
It’s More than a Word – It’s Respect
If I haven’t convinced you yet, let me end with this. Stroke is the leading cause of chronic disability in the US, yet it is rarely discussed in our culture. I believe that part of the reason for this is that the few times it is discussed, many people still use the word “victims” to refer to stroke survivors. This language creates a moment of pity, but then tells us to move on.
I want this to change. Stroke needs to be given more attention, and survivors need to be celebrated, not pitied. There is a lot they can teach us about fighting through adversity. And there is a lot we can do to join them in their fight.
This larger change might take some time, but I believe it can start with a simple one. Let’s call people that have had a stroke what they deserve to be called: survivors.
About the Author
Dr. Daniel K. Zondervan is co-founder and vice president of Flint Rehabilitation Device. He received his Ph.D. from UC Irvine, where he performed research on novel methods for optimizing stroke recovery. With over six years of experience in the field of rehabilitation science, he has published several peer-reviewed journal articles on the topic. Now our co-founder occasionally writes for the blog in hopes of using that knowledge to impact a broader audience.