Language is complex, and deeply personal, and to find a consensus is almost impossible, but in trying to source a common ground, I asked some of the leading disability advocates and writers in the US about their definitions and vocabulary of disability.
“Language is powerful.” In the words of Sinéad Burke, ‘it does not just name our society, but shapes it’. This molding of language, and the wider world, ebbs and evolves with culture and identity. As such, it can be challenging to know the right word to say and use, especially when interacting with someone new.
The disability community is not homogenous. It is made up of all races, genders, sexualities, economic classes and religions. This intersectionality frames how people process and identify their disabilities and experiences. With such a diverse group of people, it should be no surprise that there are differences among the community on what their preferred terminology is. In most cases, you may not have to address a person’s disability at all, but if you do and are unsure it’s best to just ask. Everyone you meet will have a different perspective and vocabulary.
“It is more than just words for me. It is the manner of expression that hits,” says Brett Becker. “If they have a smile on their face, and don’t seem to mean to say anything badly about it, then whatever they say will be interpreted positively by me.” It is important to approach the subject in a respectful manner and not take it too personally if a disabled person corrects you on their preferred terminology. If this happens, don’t be embarrassed, just use the preferred phrase going forward.
Identity-first or person-first language has been a debate within the community. Identity-first would be using the phrase “disabled person” or “autistic person” and Person-first language would be referring to “a person with a disability” or “a person with autism.” Some people may prefer one over the other and others may use the phrases interchangeably. Katouche Goll says, “Identity-first language’ to me ensures that the person is not forgotten. It enforces and asserts humanity. To me ‘person-first language’ feels like an attempt at making disability digestible to everyone else. Disabled isn’t a dirty word. It teaches us the importance of including the spectrum of human experiences. Person-first implies that there is something inherently wrong with being disabled that must be placated.”
Gabe Adams is a social media personality who is familiar with the power that language holds. From TikTok to Instagram, people with disabilities often face the use of offensive slurs by people in the comments section. On dealing with ableism online, Gabe said, “There’s always gonna be people who just simply don’t understand that being different is “normal.“ And there’s always gonna be those who enjoy trolling you, but you justgotta remember that as hard as it may be at times, they don’t know you and to them it’s a joke for some laughs. But that’s when you turn it into a learning moment for yourself and others. Become better and stronger than those who underestimate you.”
Terms such as wheelchair–bound, handicapped, and even special needs are frequently used by the media but are viewed as outdated and offensive to most. “I refer to myself as a Disabled woman and I’m always a wheelchair user never wheelchair bound,” says Nina Tame. “I’m not bound to my wheelchair, but I would be bound to the house without it, my wheelchair gives me freedom. I’m also someone who “has” Spina Bifida not someone who “suffers” from Spina Bifida, as I don’t see my life as one of suffering.” Outdated language should be phased out of our vocabulary by now and slurs of any kind are never acceptable.
The language used is ever changing and people can also change their preferred language as they grow and learn. Keah Brown’s preferred terminology has changed, “Before I learned to love myself, I used person-first as a way to separate myself from disability, but as I get to know my worth, I started saying Identity-first because disabled isn’t a dirty word.”
In recent times, there has been a shift in capitalizing the identities of Deaf and Disabled. Capitalizing the word Deaf is in reference to the Deaf Community and the beliefs and values they share. When you capitalize Deaf or Disabled, it is in reference to the history and culture of the community just as you would capitalize Jewish, Hispanic, and more recently, Black. “We live our lives as Disabled people. It can’t be separated from who we are. Therefore, we are already deeply ingrained in the culture and the culture makes up who we are. No matter where I go or what I do I am always going to be Latina. It’s not a costume I can take on and off. Just like my disability is part of who I am and my identity.” Cheyenne Leonard says.
Euphemisms regarding disability are more common among non-disabled people than within the disability community. Phrases like “differently-abled,” “handi-capable,” or the most prominent “special needs” seem to imply that simply being disabled is a bad thing or disability is a word you should avoid. This is not true for many disabled people. Euphemisms can be just as degrading and patronizing as slurs. Gregory Mansfield said it best, “Don’t call me by a euphemism. I’m not special, special needs, differently abled or challenged. There’s nothing wrong with being a disabled person.” The need to replace the word disabled is rooted in ableism. When there is no shame in having a disability, there is no need to avoid the term.
It is important to realize that the language used to describe disability can be powerful. Using someone’s preferred terminology will empower them and make them more comfortable. It also shows that you respect their preferences. Using offensive language can be patronizing or even degrading. Please just ask disabled people what they prefer. It is okay to correct yourself once you learn what language to use.
The APA Style guide advises, “The language to use where disability is concerned is evolving. The overall principle for using disability language is to maintain the integrity (worth and dignity) of all individuals as human beings. Authors who write about disability are encouraged to use terms and descriptions that both honor and explain person-first and identity-first perspectives. Language should be selected with the understanding that the expressed preference of people with disabilities regarding identification supersedes matters of style.” As a disabled woman, I took a quiz on “Disability Language Preferences” and failed. The language used to describe disabilities and medical conditions is left to the individual with the disability to decide how to express themselves and their identity. It is personal and evolving. As we look to the future, the language used should be intentionally uplifting and empower the disability community.
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