Unhandicap Your Language
The terms used for people with disabilities all too frequently perpetuate stereotypes and false ideas. While some words/phrases are commonly used by many, including those with disabilities, usage is likely due to habit rather than intentional meaning. However, conscious thought about what we say, and when we say it, may help to more positively reshape how we communicate about disability in society. The following is intended as suggestion, not censorship, in choosing more appropriate terms.
Less Appropriate: (the) disabled, (the) deaf, (the) blind, (the) mentally retarded
Comment: Terms describe a group only in terms of their disabilities (adjective) and not as people (noun). Humanizing phrases emphasize the person even if the adjective of the disability is included. (The debate over the use of handicap versus disabled has not been settled. Check to see which term individuals might prefer.)
More Appropriate: people with disabilities, deaf people, blind people, persons with a developmental disability
Less Appropriate: Sue is an arthritic, – diabetic, – paraplegic
Comment: Terms are variations of the condition and describes someone as the condition and implies the person is an object of medical care. Emphasizes the medical aspects of a condition instead of the person. Person is secondary to disability.
More Appropriate: Sue has arthritis, – diabetes, – paralyzed, – has paralysis in her legs
Less Appropriate: Bob is afflicted with, – stricken with, – suffers from, – a victim of polio, – spinal cord injury, – AIDS
Comment: Terms reflect negative and tragedy and connote pitiful helplessness, dependency, defeat. Denies other aspects of the person. Emphasizes the “heart string” or telethon-ish perspective.
More Appropriate: Bob has polio, – has a spinal cord injury, – has AIDS
Less Appropriate: confined to a wheelchair, wheelchair-bound, wheel-chaired
Comment: Terms create a false impression: wheelchairs liberate, not confine or bind; they are mobility tools from which people transfer to sleep, sit in other chairs, drive cars, stand, etc.
More Appropriate: wheelchair user, uses a wheelchair, wheelchair using
Less Appropriate: Anita is crippled, – a cripple; That guy’s a crip
Comment: Cripple is an epithet generally offensive to people with physical disabilities (from Old English “to creep”). A second meaning of this adjective is “inferior.” (Often disabled individuals will use these terms in reference to each other but for others to use them, it might be similar to a white person using the term the “N” word.)
More Appropriate: Anita has a physical disability; Tom is unable to walk
Less Appropriate: sightless, blind as a bat, four eyes
Comment: Terms are inaccurate, demeaning. Used as a put-down in most cases.
More Appropriate: blind, legally blind, partially sighted, vision impaired
Less Appropriate: deaf and dumb, deaf-mute, dummy
Comment: Terms implies mental incapacitation occurs with hearing loss and/or speech impairment.
More Appropriate: Deaf, Hard-of-Hearing, speech impaired
Less Appropriate: lame, paralytic, gimp, gimpy, withered hand
Comment: Terms are demeaning and outdated.
More Appropriate: walks with a cane, uses crutches, has a disabled/handicapped hand
Less Appropriate: crazy, insane, psycho, nut, maniac, former mental patient
Comment: Terms are outdated and stigmatizing. Not all people who have had a mental or emotional disability have it forever or to the same degree all the time.
More Appropriate: mental disability, behavior disorder, emotional disability, mentally restored
Less Appropriate: retard, a person with mental retardation, slow, simple-minded, idiot, Mongoloid
Comment: Terms are demeaning. Used as a put-down in most cases.
More Appropriate: people who are developmentally disabled – have Downs Syndrome
Less Appropriate: Sam is epileptic, Tony is CP (cerebral palsied),- spastic, Helen is LD (learning disabled), – is AD/HD
Comment: These phrases describe people as their disabilities. Inaccurate reference; a person is NOT a condition.
More Appropriate: Sam has epilepsy, Tony has cerebral palsy (CP), Helen has a learning disability, – attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder
Less Appropriate: “special”, person has “special needs”
Comment: Term is patronizing and distancing by those with disabilities. Often used by programs providing services and support for disabled people and meant as a ‘positive’ alternative. Describes that which is different about ANY person as all simply have “needs.”
More Appropriate: (none is needed), accommodations are needed
Less Appropriate: physically challenged, handi-capable, inconvenienced, differently-abled
Comment: To some people, these euphemisms avoid reality and rob people of dignity. Alternative words to the term “disability” are usually efforts to avoid the negative stigma ATTACHED to the word rather than seeing disability as neutral. (Cutesy-pie labels are uninformative and trivialize an important part of a person’s identity. They tend to describe everyone and therefore no one.) They are not necessarily more “politically correct.”
More Appropriate: a person has a physical, sensory or mental disability
Less Appropriate: inspirational, courageous
Comment: People with disabilities are not collectively inspirational or courageous. They are individuals who can do some things and can’t do other things. Disability itself does not create a “strong” person, that strength comes from within the person.
More Appropriate: acknowledge the person’s abilities and individuality
Less Appropriate: “isn’t it wonderful how he has overcome his/her disability?”
Comment: People LIVE with a disability, they have to overcome attitudinal, social, architectural, educational, transportation and employment barriers.
More Appropriate: accept people for who they are, including that they have a disability