Announcement from Disability Access and Education

Did you know . . . here are some phrases and words that may help you discuss disabilities more sensitively. 

In general, it is wise to use “people-first language” that does not denigrate or victimize people with disabilities.  For instance, the phrase “wheelchair-bound” victimizes while “wheelchair-user” simply describes.  “Afflicted with cerebral palsy” both victimizes and reduces the person to nothing more than a disability. To say “he has cerebral palsy” focuses on the person and makes the disability no more than a statement of fact.

Instead of “normal” or “able-bodied” referring to the opposite of “disabled,” the term “non-disabled” carries less connotation that people with disabilities are not “normal” or “capable.”  People with learning disabilities, ADHD, and Autism Spectrum Disorder can be described as “neuro-divergent,” while those who do not have similar conditions can be “neuro-typical.”

Some people object to phrases that appear to euphemize a disability.  While “special needs” can sometimes be an acceptable term, most adults prefer to avoid anything with the word “special” in it.  None of us want to be “special,” to appear to be dependent on assistance and services in which we are treated like incompetent infants or entitled to advantages that other people are denied.

Another danger is to heroize.  How often do we hear that someone with a profound disability is “brave,” “strong,” or “inspiring”?  In her TED Talk, “I am not your inspiration, thank you very much,” Stella Young asks “how am I brave for getting out of bed and getting ready for my day just as everybody else does just because I use a wheelchair?”  Let’s not overcompensate for a history of bigotry or ableism by awarding undeserved compliments.

There is a current trend by some groups away from “people-first” to “disability-first.”  The Deaf community is proud of their unique culture and communication.  In fact, they object to the term “hearing-impaired” because they do not consider themselves to be impaired or disabled in any way.  They simply have a different language, which the rest of society hasn’t bothered to learn.  Some individuals with other readily apparent disabilities prefer to claim their identity as “disabled” in the same way people claim ethnicity and nationality.

As with all aspects of political correctness it can be hard to know what terms to use to avoid offending others.  In the same way that we listen to our friends from different ethnicities to hear the words they use to describe themselves, we can listen to people with disabilities or even politely ask what they consider appropriate.  Being sensitive to the power of words is not about being correct but about treating one another with respect and seeing dignity in all people.