Respect, awareness and good will can make a world of difference when speaking to someone with a disability or with a disability different from our own. Even the most “woke” person gets tripped up occasionally: Do I say dwarf or little person? Hearing impaired, hard-of-hearing, or “person with a hearing disability”? If a person with cerebral palsy welcomes the term “crip,” does this apply to most people with a motor disability? Should I use person-first language or disability-first language? (For more on this difference, see below.)
The times and language are changing rapidly, as are the ways people with disabilities are choosing to identify themselves. Disability represents a form of diversity – similar to gender, race, religion, ethnicity and social class – and requires the same sensitivity when it comes to the way we address and refer to one another.
Below is a quick guide (adapted from paraquad.org) for respectful, mindful disability language. These suggestions aren’t meant to make anyone feel policed, self-conscious or shamed. Educate yourself on current, accepted terms. Still unsure how to address or refer to someone with a disability? Don’t guess! Ask the person directly, remembering most of us would still rather be referred to by our name than a label.
Words to avoid:
Cripple, handicapped, invalid, victim, afflicted with, confined to a wheelchair, normal (when referring to a non-disabled person), deaf-mute, birth defect, crazy/insane/mental patient, slow, mentally retarded, underachiever, deformed, handicapable, differently abled, disfigured, abnormal, palsied, spastic, physically challenged, manic, maimed, incapacitated, high-functioning/low-functioning, “special” and special needs.
Words to use:
Person with a disability, disabled, uses a wheelchair, non-disabled or able-bodied, deaf, hard of hearing, psychiatric history, emotional disorder, consumer of mental health services, epilepsy/seizures, learning disability, ADD/ADHD, developmental disability, cognitive disability, born with.
Many of the “words to avoid” are obvious. But language is not only ever-changing, it possesses layers of meaning, history and nuance. Inherent in words like invalid or victim is the belief that disabled people are “less than” able-bodied people. Ableism itself isn’t a new phenomenon, of course, though the term itself might be for some. And it has a way of slipping into our everyday language. We call people “crazy.” We say someone made a “dumb” choice or a “lame” excuse.
Andrew Pulrang, who writes a regular column for Forbes magazine on disability practices, policy, politics and culture, (link below), explains that “the harm of terms and uses like this is indirect, but no less real. They all reinforce the idea that a good way to describe bad things is to compare them to disabilities, or to disabled people.”
The good news, according to Pulrang, however, is that ableist language is also “unnecessary,” given a reasonable amount of awareness, creativity and, above all, care.
To learn more about respectful disability language, please check out these sources:
“It’s Time to Stop Even Casually Misusing Disability Words,” Andrew Pulrang in Forbes:
“The harmful ableist language you unknowingly use” – BBC’s Equality Matters
“Respectful Disability Language: Here’s What’s Up!” – NYLN (National Youth Leadership Network)
“Choosing Words for Talking About Disability” – American Psychological Association
“Disability Language Style Guide’ - National Center on Disability and Journalism
“Disability-Inclusive-Language-Guidelines” - Prepared by the United Nations Office at Geneva as part of efforts to implement the United Nations Disability Inclusion Strategy, launched in 2019.
WHAT COMES FIRST: The choice is personal and both are appropriate
Person-first language places the “person” before the “disability” and is intended to emphasize personhood over impairment. Person with a disability …
Disability-first language (or identity-first language) places “disabled” before the person, emphasizing that disability is an important part of one's identity. Disabled person …