The Language of Disability
Created 02/15/2010 – 18:32
Courtesy “Celebrating All Abilities” published by Cerebral Palsy, Inc. Wisconsin, U.S.A
Language is a fluid thing, evolving as sensitivity to the impact that words can have on attitudes increases. Terms that are thought to be perfectly acceptable one day may be deemed unacceptable the next. Like any group of people, people with disabilities often do not agree on what terminology is ‘correct’ for their ‘group’. But most agree that language can foster negative, positive, or neutral images and attitudes and that because language does play an important role in shaping beliefs and behavior, the words used to describe people with disabilities or the disabilities themselves are important and should be used with thought and care.
While not universally accepted by disability rights groups and by people with disabilities, the following will give you a number of tips regarding currently preferred language.
Disability and Handicap
The words disability and handicap are not interchangeable. A disability is a condition caused by an accident, trauma, genetics or disease which may limit a person’s mobility, hearing, vision, speech or mental function. Some people have more than one disability.
A handicap is a physical or attitudinal constraint that is imposed upon a person, regardless of whether that person has a disability.
Many people with disabilities feel their real disability involves problems with the environment rather than problems with their bodies. Architectural barriers limit participation, productivity, and independence. For instance, if a person who uses a wheelchair is offered a job that they cannot accept because it is located on the second floor of a building without an elevator, the real problem the handicap is that there is no elevator. Attitudinal barriers can cause further limitations. If an employer passes on a qualified candidate with a physical disability because he believes the person will miss too much work because of their disability, the real problem the handicap is the attitudinal barrier in the mind of the prospective employer.
Person First Language
When speaking about people with disabilities, perhaps the most important thing to remember is to always put the person first. Referencing the person before their disability conveys respect and simple good manners.
- person with a disability rather than disabled person*
- student who is deaf rather than deaf student
People are not medical conditions, and prefer not to be referred to as such:
- people with spinal cord injuries rather than the spinal cord injured
- people who have epilepsy, rather than epileptics.
While it is preferable to always reference the person first, then the disability, it is acceptable to use ‘disabled person’ occasionally when writing in the interest of conserving print space or to avoid repetitiveness.
Replacing Outdated or Demeaning Language with More
Person with a physical disability or physical disability can replace: crippled, the crippled, crip, lame, invalid, defective, deficient, bed-ridden, bound/confined/restricted to a wheelchair, deformed, handicapped, physically-challenged, differently-abled, spastic, paralytic or victim.
Person with spina bifida (for example) or person who has spina bifida can replace: stricken with/by spina bifida, victim of spina bifida, afflicted with/by spina bifida, burdened with/by spina bifida, suffers with or from spina bifida, crippled with/by spina bifida.
Person with a developmental disability or person with a cognitive delay can replace: mentally ill, mentally retarded, retarded, retard, slow, crazy, nuts, lunatic, maniac, mentally diseased, psycho, feeble minded, moron, deficient, mentally defective, imbecile or idiot.
Person who does not have a disability or person who is able to walk (for example) can replace: healthy or normal. When used for comparative purposes, the words healthy and normal imply that people with disabilities are unhealthy (many are in excellent health) or abnormal.
Person born without legs (for example), born with or condition present at birth can replace: birth defect, congenital defect.
Seizure can replace: fit, spell or attack.
Non-verbal or does not speak can replace: dumb or mute.
Accessible parking and accessible bathrooms can replace: Handicapped parking/bathroom or disabled parking/bathroom.
Words to Avoid
Avoid: special, burden, burdens to their families or to society, unfortunate, less fortunate, sick (a disability is not a sickness), fragile, abnormal, subnormal, deformed, deformity, pitiful, deaf and dumb, dependent, incompetent, patient (unless the person under discussion is in the hospital) or poor.
Avoid suggesting that people with physical, sensory or cognitive disabilities are in any way menaces, deviants or dangers to society, that they are outcasts or that they are somehow biologically inferior or less than fully human.
Avoid suggesting that people with disabilities are in constant need of charity or welfare, or that they are ‘noncontributing’ members of society.
Also avoid words like courageous, brave and inspirational. Adapting to a disability does not automatically mean acquiring those traits.
A Final Word
As mentioned earlier, the language of disability can be confusing, more so because not everyone agrees on just what the ‘correct’ word should be. Finding contradictions in what is considered ‘correct’ language in printed materials or on the web is not uncommon. Some websites contradict themselves!
Because of the lack of hard and fast rules and definitions, people are sometimes afraid of using the wrong word. Don’t be. Don’t let that uncertainty stop you from discussing disability related issues or from speaking to people with disabilities.