Terminology on Disability


Terminology for Teachers and Students on Disability


"Disability exists at the fraught intersection 
of environments, bodies, and beliefs."
David Mitchell



On "People First" Language

Why is language important? Isn't it just about 'political correctness' and semantics?

Some individuals may feel that using language considered polite or inoffensive is unnecessary. However, it's important to keep in mind that offensive language is offensive for a reason; various words and concepts used to describe disability all have their own histories and implications for people with disabilities (Linton, 1998). Being "politically correct" does not make a term automatically inoffensive to a group of people; indeed, many "politically correct" words and phrases used to refer to disability can actually be insulting to some of the people to whom these labels are attached.

Saying "differently abled" or "special," for instance, may seem on the surface to convey that someone with a disability has positive qualities about them. However, terms like these tend to be euphemistic, and are not frequently used by the people to whom they refer (Linton, 1998, pp. 14-16).

What is 'people-first language'? Does everyone use it?

"People-first" or "person-first" language is a way of describing disability that involves putting the word "person" or "people" before the word "disability" or the name of a disability, rather than placing the disability first and using it as an adjective. Some examples of people-first language might include saying "person with a disability," "woman with cerebral palsy," and "man with an intellectual disability." The purpose of people-first language is to promote the idea that someone's disability label is just a disability label—not the defining characteristic of the entire individual. Many guides on disability language and etiquette may likely emphasize using person-first language, except, perhaps, when discussing certain disability cultural groups that explicitly describe themselves with disability-first language. Thus, while it is generally a safe bet to use people-first language, there are members of certain disability groups in the US who prefer not to use it, such as the American Deaf community and a number of Autistic people/Autistics. The basic reason behind members of these groups' dislike for the application of people-first language to themselves is that they consider their disabilities to be inseparable parts of who they are. Using person-first language, some also argue, makes the disability into something negative, which can and should be separated from the person.

What does it mean to 'reclaim' a word, and why is reclaiming important?

When members of a group "reclaim" a word, they take a term that was previously used against them as a slur, and give it a positive meaning, within that particular group, as an expression of solidarity and pride in one's identity. Some members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities, for example, have reclaimed the term "queer," a longtime degrading term for LGBT peoples. Similarly, some disability cultural groups have reclaimed negative terms like "crip" (Linton, 1998). However, in some cases, reclaimed terms may be very context-dependent, continuing to retain their original, negative connotations outside of the communities that seek to reclaim them. While it may be appropriate for someone who is a member of a group to use a term in a reclaimed way due to having the personal experiences that allow them to understand when, why, and how to use such a term (and the implications of using it the wrong way), it may not be appropriate for someone outside of the group to do so.

Some notes on capitalization:

In the context of certain disabilities, the same word or phrase can have different meanings depending on how certain letters are capitalized, and whether the words or phrases are split in unusual ways, such as with slashes or parentheses. One of the classic examples of this is the difference between "big D" Deaf and "little d" deaf; whereas the term "deaf," with a lowercase "d," refers to one physically being deaf, when spelled with a capital "D," it refers to membership and/or affiliation with respect to Deaf culture and Deaf communities (American Heritage Dictionary, 2012; "D/deaf Culture," n.d.) Members of some other disability communities also use capitalization at times to emphasize their cultural identification with these communities



Example of terminology

Affirmative Phrases
Negative Phrases
  • person with an intellectual, cognitive, developmental disability
  • retarded; mentally defective
  • person who is blind, person who is visually impaired
  • the blind
  • person with a disability
  • the disabled; handicapped
  • person who is deaf
  • the deaf; deaf and dumb
  • person who is hard of hearing
  • suffers a hearing loss
  • person who has multiple sclerosis
  • afflicted by MS
  • person with cerebral palsy
  • CP victim
  • person with epilepsy, person with 
  • seizure disorder
  • epileptic
  • person who uses a wheelchair
  • confined or restricted to a wheelchair
  • person who has muscular dystrophy
  • stricken by MD
  • person with a physical disability, physically disabled
  • crippled; lame; deformed
  • unable to speak, uses synthetic speech
  • dumb; mute
  • person with psychiatric disability
  • crazy; nuts
  • person who is successful, productive
has overcome his/her disability; is courageous (when it implies the person has courage because of having a disability)



Six Things Never to Say About Disabilities

1. Never say “a disabled person” or “the disabled.” Say a person or people “with disabilities.”

Put the person first. A disability is what someone has, not what someone is. For instance, “mentally ill” is less respectful than “person with mental-health issues.” “Retarded” is never an appropriate term. Say “intellectual disabilities” or “cognitive disabilities.”

2. Never use the term “handicapped parking.” Use “accessible parking” instead.

Handicapped parking is still in use (e.g., when referring to parking placards), though the word “handicapped” is offensive and has been virtually eliminated in most other contexts. Remove it from your organization’s vocabulary completely by using the term “accessible parking.” (It’s also more accurate, as accessible describes the parking and handicapped does not.)

3. Never use the term “impaired.” Use terms such as “low vision,” “hard of hearing” or “uses a wheelchair” instead.

Though it may be used in legal contexts, the word “impaired” can be offensive, as it implies damage. Many people with disabilities do not see themselves as damaged, but simply as different.

4. Never say “hidden” disabilities. Say “non-visible” or “non-apparent.”

Many disabilities are not apparent, such as serious illnesses or chronic health conditions, sensory limitations, or mental-health and learning disabilities. When referring to these disabilities, avoid using hidden, as it has negative connotations, implying purposeful concealment or shame.

5. Whenever possible, don’t say “accommodations.” Say “adjustments” or “modifications.”

This can be tricky, as accommodation has a specific legal meaning and must be used in certain contexts, like policy or government communications. However, accommodation suggests doing a favor for the person who has a disability. An accommodation is a workplace or work-process modification made to enable an employee to be more productive. It is necessary and not a preference or privilege. The terms adjustment and modification capture this idea without suggesting a favor or special treatment, so are preferable whenever specific legal terminology is not required.

6. Never use victim or hero language; describe situations in a straightforward way.

Don’t use language that portrays people with disabilities as victims, such as “suffers from,” “challenged by,” or “struggles with.” Say “someone who uses a wheelchair” or “wheelchair user,” not “wheelchair-bound” or “confined to a wheelchair.” On the flip side, don’t use heroic language when people with disabilities complete everyday tasks and responsibilities. People with disabilities don’t see themselves as inspiring simply because they’re going about their daily lives. We all have challenges—working around those challenges is not heroic, it’s just human.



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