This post was written by Melissa Bourne, NACCHO Health and Disability Program Fellow.
The use of language and words describing people with disability has changed over time. Be aware of the meaning behind the words used when talking to, or referring to, people with disabilities. Discriminatory or derogatory words such as “handicapped,” “crippled,” and “retarded” should be avoided. While it is commonly used, the phrase “special needs” may also be viewed as condescending or stigmatizing. Avoid using victim phrases such as “suffers from” or “stricken by” which suggest discomfort or hopelessness. Rather than saying “wheelchair-bound” or “confined to a wheelchair,” view the wheelchair as a mobility aide and say, “wheelchair user” or “person who uses a wheelchair.” When describing people without disabilities, avoid terms such as “normal” or “healthy” which imply that people with disability are strange, odd, or unhealthy. When referring to places with accommodations for people with disabilities, such as parking spaces or bathroom facilities, use the term “accessible” rather than “handicapped.” Disrespectful language can make people feel excluded and can be a barrier to full participation. Using proper terminology is empowering.
Person-first language refers to the person with a disability (for example, “person with autism”) whereas identity-first language refers to the disabled person (“autistic person”). Proponents of person-first language say that this language emphasizes the person and not the disability, reflecting the individuality and dignity of people with disability. Some disability groups prefer identity-first language where the disability comes before the person. Supporters of identity-first language say that this language embraces and celebrates their disability, while person-first language can turn disability into something negative and separates the person from the disability. With identity-first language, capital letters are used to refer to the disability group (for example, “Deaf community”), while lower case letters refer to the disability (“deaf” refers to the loss of hearing).
One aspect in the language of disability that has been discussed to a lesser extent is the use of the singular term “disability” or the plural form “disabilities.” These words are often used interchangeably when referring to groups of people with disability. Disability advocates commonly recommend using the phrase “people with disability” instead of “people with disabilities.” The singular “disability” denotes commonalities among types of disability, indicating that people with disability have common health, social, and political goals. “Disability” is a collective noun used in the singular form when describing the group, and is considered to be more inclusive. The plural “disabilities” implies fragmentation where differences are more important than commonalities.
It is important to recognize that there is diversity within the disability community and people with disability may choose to self-identify in a number of different ways. What is acceptable for some people may not be acceptable for others. Refer to the disability only if it is relevant to the conversation and ask the person with a disability about their individual preference on how to be addressed. When in doubt, default to person-first language. It is the most widely accepted approach and is used by most organizations.
- Respect individual preferences for disability language
- Refer to the disability only if it is essential to the situation
- Avoid offensive, condescending, or stereotyped terms
- Eliminate negative tone and words that imply victimization
- When in doubt, politely ask!
- Disability Language Guide from the Stanford Disability Initiative
- Inclusive Language for Talking About People with Intellectual Disabilities from the Special Olympics
- Communicating About People with Disabilities from the National Disability Rights Network