A lot of people worry about what language to use when talking about disabilities, and about people who have them. People want to be respectful, or at least PC. Some people want to protect themselves from what they see as hostile attacks when they use what we who have disabilities recognize as defamatory, hurtful, or belittling language. Others know that the language used means something, that words have emotional resonance and cultural meaning (sometimes multiple cultural meanings), as well as literal definitions.
What I’m about to tell you is not the final word on disability language. I’m not the expert on this—no one can be—and my aim is only to present some facts and theories for your consideration, and share what I find works for me both personally and professionally.
Many people are confused because the terms we are and aren’t “supposed” to use around disability seem like they change on a dime. These language changes are not random; the changing ways in which we use disability language is directly affected by a global community of people (or perhaps communities of people all around the globe), with various disabilities or impairments, and our growing voices and presences.
So, how do we figure out what words to use, especially if we’re not plugged into disability politics and activism?
I think we do this by changing our approach a wee bit.
I think we’re best off not worrying so much about whether we’re using the wrong words, or the latest PC terms, as whether we’re actually saying what we mean, saying what we want to say.
For starters, when talking about disability, there’s a tendency to talk about disability itself, or the people who have it, as one big homogeneous thing. This often comes out as talk of “the disabled” or “the blind,” or some other disability group. Honestly, I can’t think of too many scenarios in which talking about disability (or people with disabilities) as a whole would lead to anything close to accuracy. Also, and this is a biggy, we’re not “the disabled.” People talk about making sure the person comes first when talking about us—will flesh that more in a bit—and there’s no better way to make sure that our personhood is completely erased than by using disability as the sole way of addressing or describing us.
The other big problem with referring to disabled people as a homogeneous whole is that this is often done when talking about accessibility or inclusion. It’s always nice to know that we, as a group, are welcome somewhere, but if the practical needs of one disability group aren’t met in a specific place or situation, saying that this place or situation is disability accessible is misleading, and again, dehumanizing.
If we’re trying to indicate that an event is being held in a place accessible to people using wheelchairs and other mobility devices—that is, a space with no stairs (or that has alternatives to stairs), spacious doorways, et cetera—we need to say so, not just say that the space is disability-accessible. After all, if the event only offers sign-up sheets, educational materials, etc in printed form or there is no sign language interpreter or captioning service, the event is not accessible in general. Maybe it sounds like splitting hairs, but what I’m trying to say is that it’s important to indicate what kind of accessibility we’re talking about when we say “accessible.”
It’s also important to acknowledge the differences between disabled people, not to place disabilities on a hierarchy (as is sadly often done, and sometimes by people with disabilities ourselves) but as a way of acknowledging individual needs, and, I think, of acknowledging that the disability is just one part of the person.
In other words, the more specific we are in what we say and how we say it, we can end up placing less overall emphasis on disability, and more on the whole person. This is particularly true when we’re talking about access, as if people know up-front whether their access needs are more or less likely to be met, the more everyday their disability becomes. Access isn’t about doing special things, after all, but about levelling the playing field or balancing the scales.
What about terms for disability and disabled people? Do we say disabled people or people with disabilities? Is handicapped okay? We’re not allowed to say crippled, right?
What terms are acceptable will vastly depend on who you are, who you’re addressing, where in the world you live, and what you’re trying to do with your words.
Yes, “crippled” is generally not an okay term these days. But many disabled people call themselves crips (or sometimes “krips”) as a way to reclaim the word. As with most reclaimed words, it belongs to the population reclaiming it. Unless you personally have a crip identity, you’re probably best off not using the word in your writing, unless you’re quoting someone talking about their own crip identity or unless you’re writing or talking about crip theory/activism as a movement.
One of the newer terms—and the current darling of the PC brigade–is “differently abled.” Words cannot describe how much I personally detest this term. It is saccharin, infantilizing, dismissive, and ultimately meaningless. It’s meant to emphasize that we all have different abilities and strengths, but since it’s a term reserved for people with disabilities and not used to describe everyone else, it still promotes that there is a norm, and then there is other, and that we who have disabilities are other.
The term “differently abled” almost literally hurts my teeth when I think about it, hurts in the way that biting into candy that is just pure sugar and food colouring often does. I’ve personally felt the othering impact of this term. Once upon a time I was participating in a sex education event where I heard one educator blithely discussing things that were “good for the differently abled.” This person’s supervisor had just reacted negatively to my presence upon discovering that the person (me) they had previously just conversed with online was someone with a disability. As I listened to the talk of the “differently abled” I couldn’t help but marvel that I, a “differently abled” person, was sitting right there, feeling totally alienated from what was supposed to be an accepting, inclusive space.
I’m not the only one who feels this way about “differently abled,” though. In Twitter discussions with other disabled folks, the point was raised that politically correct terms have not affected any obvious change; we still have stigma against people with disabilities; we still have unequal access. I agree with this. I’d suggest that having PC terms allows people to skate through without giving what they’re saying or doing a lot of thought. See how this ties back to what I was talking about earlier—being sure to say what we mean, and say what will be most useful to others?
So, what terms do we use? I’m partial to people with disabilities and disabled people myself. Again, I also think that, wherever it fits, specifying which disability we’re talking about is useful.
So, is it people with disabilities, or disabled people? Depends who you ask. This is also a question that has gotten a lot of dialogue going.
Many folks with disabilities believe in people-first-language; that is, saying or writing the person before the disability. Others, me included, think that doing this 100% of the time is grammatically cumbersome and unnecessary. Some people, I’m still on the fence about this, think that the person-first construction puts more emphasis on the disability, not less. Others prefer “disabled people” as a way of asserting disabled identity and claiming disability pride, much as the folks who’ve reclaimed Crip, gimp, and other words-formerly-known-as-insults are doing.
Grammatically, it can get pretty awkward pretty quickly when we’re always saying “people who are disabled,” or “a person who is blind,” or “women with intellectual disabilities.” Because I’m personally not completely wedded to person-first language, and am also not completely opposed to it, I tend, when writing, to start by using the person-first construction, then use either one, depending on what grammar and sentence structure call for subsequently.
Calling people “differently abled” also puts the emphasis on the individual person. Disability is understood by many disability activists to be partially or wholly a product of society’s lack of physical or cultural accessibility to different impairments.
The Disabled People’s International explained the difference this way.
Impairment: is the functional limitation within the individual caused by physical, mental or sensory impairment.
Disability: is the loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in the normal life of the community on an equal level with others due to physical and social barriers. (DPI, 1982)
Viewed this way—and please do understand that there are many, many other models for understanding disability and disabled people’s experiences—we can think of the way “differently abled” has been embraced by the PC brigade as a societal shedding of responsibility. It’s much easier to talk about the words we’re supposed to use than to stretch out of our comfort zone, and do the emotional and practical work of having a fair and just society for everyone.
I’m leaving you for the moment (I’ll be bac, I assure you) with a few links sussing out some of what I’ve pondered here. If you’re wondering where to do more reading beyond these links, I’d suggest focusing your search on material written by individuals with disabilities or by disability advocacy groups. As always, if you have questions, thoughts, or would like to discuss anything I’ve written here, please don’t hesitate to contact me.
Autistic Hoya: How “Differently Abled” Marginalizes Disabled People
Wheelchair Dancer: Differently Abled — Disability Language On My Mind
Disability Definitions, Models and Terminology | Western Cape Government