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Disability Terminology: A Starter Kit for Nondisabled People and the Media

Over at FWD/Forward, Anna recently linked this article on the media’s problem with coming up for terms to discuss disability. This problem is not limited to the media; a lot of people struggle with disability terminology. People want to use the right word, but they’re not really sure what the right word is, and sometimes some very intriguing circumlocutions and euphemisms are employed in the service of trying to be respectful.

I thought I’d write a very brief primer on some disability terminology in US English, to familiarise nondisabled readers with the language that has arisen as disability rights activists fight for the right to self identify, to resist ableist language, and to confront problematic framings of disability embedded in the way we talk about disability. The disability rights movement is much older than many people realise and from the start, people were tackling, confronting, and challenging language. Respectful language is already here; it’s been developed, refined, and used by people with disabilities for decades, it’s just disseminating to the general population very slowly.

It’s important to remember here that self-identification trumps all—if you are talking to or about a particular person, please ask how that person identifies or would like to be referred to.

It’s also important to remember that there are different frameworks for thinking and talking about disability, not just around the world, but in the United States. While this primer is broadly useful for talking about disability in the US, because that is where I am writing, your mileage may vary.

As always, if in doubt, ask. I’m also not addressing reclamatory language, an entirely separate and complex issue, in this post, but suffice it to say that people are allowed to use whatever language they want to self identify, and that it is not safe to assume that because one person uses a particular term, that term can be applied to all people.

I can’t even begin to cover everything in one post and I’m not even going to pretend to. This is sort of a ‘worst hits’ of the terminology I most commonly see being used by people who are well meaning and struggling for the right word that makes me cringe.

‘Wheelchair bound’/’confined to a wheelchair’: ‘Marika is confined to a wheelchair.’

The term ‘wheelchair bound’ is, as Anna explains in this post about the term at FWD, shackling language.

A better term to use is ‘wheelchair user’: ‘Marika is a wheelchair user.’ ‘Ai uses a wheelchair for mobility.’ Something to bear in mind here is that not all people who use wheelchairs use them all the time; ‘Kayin is a full time wheelchair user.’ ‘Giorgos is a part time wheelchair user.’

‘The disabled’/’The handicapped’: ‘I worry that the disabled won’t be able to access my store.’ ‘Where do the handicapped fit into this social programme?’

We are not a monolith. Or a collective noun. Nor are our disabilities the sum total of our identities.

Better term: ‘person with disabilities’/’people with disabilities’: ‘I worry that my store may not be accessible to people with disabilities’. This person-first language is preferred by many people in the United States.

In the United Kingdom, the preferred usage is ‘disabled person’/’disabled persons (or people),’ which has to do with the model of disability used there: ‘Disabled persons need to be able to vote in privacy.’ The term ‘handicapped’ is pretty much deprecated at this point due to negative associations.

Pretty much, any ‘the [disability-as-a-collective-noun]’ or ‘[person] is a [disability-as-noun]’ framing is inadvisable. People are not their disabilities. Thus, ‘I worry about how this law will impact the d/Deaf community,’ not ‘I worry about how this law will impact the d/Deaf’ and ‘my cousin has bipolar disorder,’ not ‘my cousin is a bipolar.’

For some disabilities, some people may choose identify themselves with a disability-as-adjective framing, using disability as a facet of identity; ‘Ming is quadriplegic’ or ‘Francesca is autistic’ as opposed to ‘Ming has quadriplegia’ or ‘Francesca has autism.’ Not all people identify this way, and not all disabilities can be applied as adjectives in this way. It’s better, when possible, to mirror the language someone uses. If you know someone who identifies as ‘schizophrenic,’ for example, rather than as ‘a person with schizophrenia,’ you could say ‘my friend is schizophrenic.’ Err on the side of caution if you don’t know how someone self-identifies: ‘my friend has schizophrenia.’

‘Suffers from’/’Sufferer’/’Victim of’: ‘Consuelo suffers from depression.’ ‘Gunther is a victim of a traumatic brain injury.’

Disability is not a tragedy. Both of these framings assume that. Someone can be suffering and have a disability, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the person is suffering because of the disability. (Correlation is not causation!)

Better framing: ‘Consuelo has depression.’ ‘Gunther has a traumatic brain injury.’ These framings are value neutral. They provide information on the disability a person has, without turning it into a melodrama. People can decide of their own volition whether or not they are suffering, what the cause of that suffering is, and how to identify it, if they feel inclined to identify at all.

‘Handicapable’: ‘They rented the handicapable bus so Artie could come too.’

As a general rule, cutesy euphemisms should be avoided.

Better: ‘accessible’: ‘they rented the accessible bus so Artie could come too.’

More to the point, though, why do you need to emphasize that a modified bus is being used at all? It stresses disability-as-other and is a suggestion that ‘accessibility’ is something special or a hardship. Ideally, all buses would be accessible, and thus no special mention would need to be made.

‘Mentally disabled’: ‘Ahmed is mentally disabled.’

Do you mean that Ahmed has an intellectual or cognitive disability? ‘Mentally disabled,’ in addition to often being read (and used) as a slur, is not terribly accurate. Any number of disabilities can involve the brain.

‘Invalid’/’Cripple’: ‘Patrice is an invalid.’

This goes back to the ‘people are not their disabilities’ issue. Oh, and these words are slurs, which is a fantastic reason to not use them as general terms to refer to people with disabilities, although some of us do self-identify as ‘crips.’

Better: ‘Patrice has a disability.’ ‘Francois has multiple sclerosis.’

‘Physically challenged’: ‘Physically challenged athletes from around the world are gathering for the Paralympic Games.’ ‘Karim is physically challenged.’

No. Just. No. Let me tell you about how disability is constantly framed as a ‘challenge’ that must be ‘overcome’ and how much pressure is put on people with disabilities to be ‘brave.’ Actually, I’d rather not. Because this is a narrative about disability that surrounds us and that gets thrust in my face every day.

Better: ‘Disabled.’ ‘Disabled athletes from around the world are gathering for the Paralympic Games.’ ‘Fernando is disabled/has a disability.’

It’s really exciting to me to see more and more nondisabled people thinking about disability, evaluating their own roles in this ableist world, and pushing back on the ableism they identify around them. I’m hoping that getting a little taste of the language used to talk about disability and the language that some people with disabilities prefer in this post will encourage you to seek out more writing on disability and language. I would like to reach a point where the media automatically turns to ‘wheelchair user’ instead of ‘confined to a wheelchair’ and where I can read a post by a nondisabled advocate talking about ableism that doesn’t use ‘the disabled’ to refer to us, when respectful language is the norm and everyone uses it naturally, without even having to think about it.

(Thanks much to abby and Anna for their helpful assistance with edits on this post!)