Guide to Disability Language for Better Inclusivity

by | Jul 29, 2022

We are all familiar with the saying “language is power,” and how we communicate about people with disabilities shapes how society sees those of us who are disabled.

Our words can create an inclusive or exclusive environment, and ultimately, whether a person with a disability feels seen and valued in our communities. In this post, let’s explore a few (not all) of the most common disability-inclusive language mistakes and how you can use language that lifts and includes everyone.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer regarding language surrounding disability. However, some general guidelines can be helpful.

For example, being respectful and avoiding using offensive terms is essential. It is also important to be aware of the different schools of thought on disability language and stay updated on the latest changes and developments (knowing the history of the words we use can also help us to understand whether they are derogatory or not).

Additionally, mental health is an integral part of the conversation around disability, and we must consider whether the words we use are stigmatizing.

Ultimately, the best way to navigate disability language is to listen to people affected by disabilities and respect their preferences. By doing so, we can create a more inclusive society for everyone.

A Guide to Disability Language

When discussing people with disabilities, we should avoid using outdated, condescending, or offensive terms.

Terms to avoid:

  • crippled
  • handicapped (more on this term later)
  • handicapable
  • retarded
  • challenged
  • differently abled
  • special needs
  • lame
  • crazy
  • dumb

Instead, opt for neutral terms like a person with a disability. When referring to a specific disability, use the name of the condition (i.e., Down syndrome, cerebral palsy).

girl with down syndrome doing yoga

If you’re unsure what terminology to use, it is always best to ask the person directly. Also, I like to have grace for myself and others regarding our words. Often, people do not even know that some terms are outdated or condescending; however, when we learn otherwise, it’s respectful of the disability community to acknowledge our mistake and move forward.

Using sensitive and accurate language promotes inclusivity for disabled people.

Do I use identity-first or person-first language?

The preferred way of referring to people with disabilities is a matter of personal preference for the disabled person. Some people choose the Identity-First Language (i.e., disabled person); others might prefer Person First language (i.e., person with a disability). With this said, you might be curious about which you should use, so let’s explore these concepts a little more.

Identity first language is a form of disability advocacy that emphasizes the importance of disability as a critical part of a person’s identity. This approach centers on disabled people and their experiences and rejects the idea that disability is something to be overcome or cured. Instead, disability is considered a key part of a person and should be embraced.

A couple of examples of identity first language are disabled people, autistic man, etc.

Person-first language, however, focuses on the person rather than the disability. This approach minimizes the focus on disability and emphasizes the individual’s humanity. While both methods have merits, disability advocates have argued that identity-first language is more empowering and inclusive. They posit that person-first language often has the effect of erasing disability from the conversation, which can be alienating for disabled people.

girl with crutches talking to girl in wheelchair

The decision of which approach to use is personal and should be based on what feels most comfortable and empowering for the individual you’re referring to. And just in case you are curious about my preference, I am ok with both person-first language and identity-first language. Why? Because I stand in solidarity with the disabled community as disability is an integral part of who I am (identity-first). Yet, I also do not define myself by my disability as it is not all that I am (person-first). You may notice that I am also using both in my writing.

If you are unsure, the best thing to do is ask the person how they would like to be referred. Disability is not a dirty word, and people should feel free to self-identify in whatever way they feel comfortable.

Use Neutral Language

The disability community has long fought against using language that portrays people with disabilities as passive or lacking in some way. Words like victim, invalid, and sufferer suggest that disability is something to be pitied or ashamed of, which is not the case. People with disabilities are just as capable and deserving of respect as anyone else.

In recent years, there has been a shift towards using more empowering language when referring to disability. For example, rather than saying that someone is “suffering from a disease,” it is now more common to say that they “live with” or “have” that disease. This language change reflects a greater acceptance and understanding of disability, which supports disability pride.

Other examples of neutral language include; Person who has had a stroke rather than a stroke victim or a congenital disability rather than a birth defect.

Use Language that Promotes ACCESSIBILITY

If you choose to take One Change (pun intended) away from this blog, please stop saying handicapped. Alternatively, use accessible. Handicapped is still a common term, so this might be a challenging change, but I believe in you!

The word handicapped is often used in a negative or derogatory way which can be hurtful and alienating for disabled people. The term handicapped suggests that people with disabilities are somehow limited or impaired, which is not the case! People with disabilities are just as capable as anyone else. We may require certain accommodations or assistance, but this does not make us less capable. The word accessibility is a much better choice, as it simply refers to the fact that some people may need accommodations to participate fully in life. Using the word accessible means avoiding hurtful stereotypes and acknowledging that everyone has different needs.

man in wheelchair in woodworking shop

Another way to view this is to consider your environment and whether that space is accessible? The space is not handicapped; it is either accessible or not. When we think of a bathroom, for example, is a bathroom handicapped, or is it made to provide access for all people regardless of ability? With this said, our environment is either accessible or not; there are no shades of gray here. And if the space is ADA compliant but not accessible, what is the point? Compliance does not equal inclusivity.

A recent example of this for me is when I used an “accessible” dressing room at Macy’s and had to move the clothing rack before entering. Or another example is when the accessible entrance is there but blocked by freight or something else.

Examples of language that promotes accessibility include Accessible parking vs. Handicapped parking or accessible restroom vs. disabled restroom.

Terms that Perpetuate Negative Stereotypes about Psychiatric Disabilities

Even though nearly one in five adults in the United States lives with a mental illness, there is still a great deal of misunderstanding and stigma surrounding mental health, which can make it difficult for people to seek out the help they desire and can lead to discrimination and negative attitudes towards those who live with psychiatric disabilities.

The American Psychiatric Association has released new guidelines for communicating about mental health to combat this stigma. These guidelines emphasize the importance of using respectful and accurate language when discussing mental illness. For example, instead of saying that someone “committed suicide,” it is more respectful to say that they “died by suicide.”

Using terms like “mental health patient” or “schizophrenic” can also be harmful, as they reinforce the idea that people with mental illness are somehow different or less than others. This is an area where by using person-first language, we can help break down the barriers existing between those with mental illness and the rest of society.

In Closing

I’d like to reiterate that celebrating disability pride means understanding and using respectful language. I’ve shared a few suggested guidelines for considering the words we use regarding people with disabilities, yet it’s important to remember that these are just suggestions. This disability pride month and throughout the year, we can support those with disabilities by respecting people’s preferences and recognizing that everyone has their own way of identifying with their disability.

couple using sign language

We should work to be mindful of our language when discussing disabilities online and in person (and give ourselves and others grace when we make a mistake). It’s important to stay up-to-date on the latest changes and developments in this area to create a more inclusive society for everyone.

And finally, If you’re not sure how to talk about someone in a way that is respectful and celebratory, ask them! Chances are they will be more than happy to help you understand how to celebrate their identity and promote disability pride through your word or communication choices.

Have questions or comments? Let us know in the comments below – we can all learn from each other as we work together towards a more inclusive world. Happy Disability Pride Month!

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