These days, everyone knows the importance of choosing our words carefully. Using the wrong words can offend, hurt, and isolate others. They can cause the speaker to look ignorant or rude.
The same is true with the language people use when they are discussing disability, individuals with disabilities, and related topics.
There are certain words that you can wipe from your vocabulary—and certain changes that you can make across the board to be sure you are speaking respectfully to and about disability and those with disabilities.
1. Person-First Language: The basic idea of person-first language is to say the person before you say the disability. Say the person first. Don’t say “Down syndrome girl” or “wheelchair kid.” Say, “a girl who has Down syndrome” and “a kid who uses a wheelchair.” While the difference may seem subtle, its implication is powerful. Always put the person first. The disability doesn’t define the person. They are a person first!
2. The "R" Word: This word needs to go away. Even if you feel certain that you are using it in the correct way, just be safe and wipe the word “retarded” completely out of your vocabulary. Most people with disabilities find the word offensive. Find a different word to use.
3. Disabled: There is a movement toward the discussion of “differently abled” instead of disabled. We all have abilities and our abilities vary. Try using the term “differently abled.” Also, change “She is disabled” to “She has a disability.” Again, it might seem subtle, but the message is that she is not her disability.
4. Special: This is a word used by many people when they talk about individuals with disabilities. The term “special needs” is widely used. But consider for a minute what emotion the word “special” evokes. The word “special” does not evoke respect or honor. Instead, the word “special” brings about pity, cuteness, and a “less than” mentality. It’s one thing to refer to a 4 year old as special, but is it okay to refer to a 44-year-old as special? Most individuals with disabilities do, indeed, have unique needs. But those needs don’t require a condescending label like “special.” Try saying, “Individuals with disabilities” instead.
It is important that we are careful with the words that we use when we talk about disability.
However, it is also important that we show some grace for each other. If people are worried about hurting my feelings by using the wrong words, then they will be less likely to engage my daughter or myself in conversation. We must show understanding toward people when they don’t know the ins and outs of respectful language.
And because feelings about words and language vary greatly, even in the disability community, we need to allow for mistakes. Taking advantage of teachable moments and kindly informing others of better language choices is the key to change while encouraging interaction and communication.
For additional information on dealing with daily life, check out Navigating Daily Life on this website.