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 …
Fellow Democrats Abroad, did you know that in the United States if you have a disability, you have a right to accommodations when using App-based rides services like Uber and Lyft? If you are being charged fees because it takes you longer to get to your ride, then that may be a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act or other applicable laws or regulations. The US Department of Justice has sued Uber for this kind of practice. Uber has denied any wrongdoing. However, if you have a disability and think that you were charged unfairly as a result, then make sure to let your driver know that you took longer to get to the vehicle because of your disability and ask them to let Uber know and to waive the fee. Remember though that Uber makes the policies, not the drivers.
The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) / Office of Public Affairs (OPA) / JUSTICE NEWS
Justice Department Sues Uber for Overcharging People with Disabilities https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/justice-department-sues-uber-overcharging-people-disabilities
The Justice Department today filed an ADA lawsuit against Uber for charging “wait time” fees to passengers who, because of disability, take longer than two minutes to get in their Uber car. Individuals who believe they have been victims of disability discrimination by Uber because they, or someone they were traveling with, were charged wait time fees should contact the Justice Department at 833-591-0425 (toll-free), 202-305-6786, or send an email to [email protected]. For more information about the ADA, call the Department’s toll-free ADA Information Line at 800-514-0301 (TDD 800-514-0383) or access the ADA website at ada.gov.