Language is a very powerful thing, particularly in the disability community. Words have a way of empowering, inspiring, motivating, and uplifting others. Words also have the great power to harm, exclude and oppress individuals with disabilities from greater society. Often times, throughout our history, it has become necessary to change our language and the way in which we refer to individuals with disabilities to avoid further oppression and segregation from full inclusion and citizenship in human society.
The time has come to reshape our language once again so we refer to people with disabilities in a respectful and inclusive manner.
When choosing words about people with disabilities, the central principle is to refer to the person first, not the disability. In place of saying "the disabled," it is preferred that we say "people with disabilities." This way, the emphasis is placed on the person first and foremost, not the disability.
It is only important to refer to a person’s disability if it is relevant to the conversation or situation. Disability should not be the primary, defining characteristic of any individual, but simply one aspect or quality of the whole person we’re talking to or about.
Why should we use “people first language”? Well, people who have disabilities are present in every aspect of society. They are:
• Our parents
• Our children
• Our co-workers and supervisors
• Our scientists, such as Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein
• Our dear friends and close neighbors
• Our stars and entertainers, like Marlee Matlin, Josh Blue and Teddy Pendergrass
• Our students and teachers
Most importantly, we are people first!
Many labels used to define people with disabilities in our world community have extremely negative connotations and are simply misleading. Using these labels contributes to negative stereotypes and devalues the person they are trying to describe. Please avoid them at all costs when you are speaking to, or about, people with disabilities.
The following terms should be avoided when speaking and writing to or about people with disabilities:
• Deaf and dumb
• Special person
• Suffers from
• Stricken with
• Afflicted with
Making the Change to People First Language
• "handicapped" or "disabled" should be replaced with "people with disabilities"
• "the handicapped" or "the disabled" should be replaced with "people who have/with disabilities"
• "he/she is wheelchair bound" or "he/she is confined to a wheelchair" should be replaced with "he/she uses a wheelchair" I myself am an active wheelchair user and am not confined by my wheelchair.
• "he/she has a birth defect" should be replaced with "he/she has a congenital disability" or “he/she acquired a disability from birth”
• "handicapped" in reference to parking, bathrooms, rooms etc. should be replaced with "accessible" We don’t want parking, bathrooms, rooms etc. to have anything wrong with them. We want to be able to access them, too!
• "he/she is retarded or MR" should be replaced with "he/she has an intellectual disability
• Please do not refer to a person’s disability unless it is relevant to the conversation. If it doesn't matter, don't mention it.
• Please do use the word "disability" rather than "handicap" to refer to a person’s disability. Never use "cripple/crippled" in any reference to a disability. It brings to mind, for me, images of withered leaves, weakness, and worthlessness.
• When referring to a person’s disability, always defer to use of "People First Language."
• Avoid referring to people with disabilities as "the disabled, the blind, the epileptics, the retarded." Descriptive terms should be used as adjectives, not as nouns unless you might be talking statistically about a part of the larger human community.
• Avoid negative or outlandish images of a person’s disability. Don’t say "suffers from, a victim of, or afflicted with." These portrayals bring to mind unwanted sympathy, or worse, pity toward individuals with disabilities and that lowers people with disabilities among our peers without disabilities. Respect and acceptance is what people with disabilities most prefer. Only we can define our own suffering for ourselves. Please don’t project it on to us.
• Please don’t use "normal" or "able-bodied" to describe people who do not have disabilities. It is better to say "people without disabilities," if necessary to make comparisons. What is normal anyway? My body is able, maybe I do things differently than my counterparts without disabilities, but I’m still able.
• Please don’t use the word “retarded” to call someone else “stupid”. I have several friends with intellectual disabilities who are gifted in other areas of life beyond learning, but they are not stupid because of a learning difficulty.
Content copyright © 2009 by Monica J. Foster. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Monica J. Foster. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Monica J. Foster for details.