SIX WORDS TO DELETE FROM YOUR DISABILITY VOCABULARY

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Language is powerful and the words we use make a difference. That’s why we need to be careful to examine the words we use when we talk about disability and people with disabilities.

I could write full posts on each of these points, and perhaps I will in the future. But for now, here are six terms that we need to delete from our vocabulary around disability and disabled people.

I. Inspirational

There is a reason that inspiration porn is a widespread concept among the disabled community, and it’s because disabled people are done with being labeled as inspirational for simply existing. The very [very] common mentality that disabled people are inspiring for living in a disabled body implies that living with disability is something that one shouldn’t be able to do, or that is so extraordinarily difficult and unimaginable. This has lead to viewing disabled people as inspiring for just being or doing the most commonplace of tasks, such as going to school, living independently, or not being constantly miserable because they are disabled. And if you think that’s an exaggeration, trust that it is not–many disabled people [and in my circle, many blind people] can tell you story upon story.

II. Special Needs

Far from being a term of endearment or a position of favour, special has become a derogatory term for the unique needs or accommodations of disabled people. “You’re special” often becomes an insult, meant to dehumanize and devalue the differences and unique ways in which every human being lives. The truth is that what many consider to be “special” needs are just adaptations, but the basics of what we all need are the same, which turns them from special needs into what they are: human needs.

III. Burden

Many disabled people will need extra help at different times, and this can often cause a feeling of being a burden or “too much.” Unfortunately, it isn’t only disabled people that feel like a burden–able-bodied people, both today and in the past–have used this term to describe their disabled equals. Saying that one is a burden only furthers the false belief that the needs and accommodations of a disabled person are more troublesome and harder to handle than the needs and accommodations of a non-disabled person.

IV. Caregiver

The term caregiver is not inherently ableist or negative, but I want to address the use of this term, and moreso, the notion that disabled people always have one. Among others, I have been out and about with friends or family and been confronted with a stranger who assumed that my companion is a caregiver or caretaker. The implication here is that disabled people require a caregiver, and therefore, are incapable [or at least, less capable than non-disabled people] of being independent and self-sufficient. Having a caregiver doesn’t negate one’s own abilities and there’s no shame in this dynamic or using this word if it is the person’s preference, but we need to drop the assumption that disabled people have caregivers and a generalization of disability as being less capable of independence than those without disabilities.

V. Sorry

When mentioning a disability, this five-letter word is too quick to appear in the conversation. It speaks more to the cultural norm of pity as the appropriate response to disability than the individual’s personal perspective [although they may be synonymous]. Either way, the pity that disabled people face on a daily basis communicates that the life they live, which is often fulfilling and vibrant, isn’t as worty or satisfactory as a non-disabled person’s life, and this only further marginalizes disabled people from their able-bodied equals.

VI. Handicapped

I left this one for last for the sole purpose of it being one of the most problematic terms that exist around disability. However, it’s also one of the most common, with it being used to describe the “handicapped” parking spot or the “handicapped” stall in the bathroom, it’s engrained into our language.

What handicapped focuses on is the person’s disadvantage, or inability to live up to preconceived, able-bodied standards. It draws the attention to what a person cannot do rather than what they can. It points out their unique needs, making them into more than simply their individual, human needs. It takes away the human and replaces it with the disability.

So why then, is disabled an acceptable term?

Because being disabled is acceptable. It’s okay. It’s wonderful. It’s God-given and beautiful. With disabilities, we can still love, worship, help, feel joy and live fulfilling lives. And it’s much easier to do those things when disability is a celebrated part of a person’s identity… the way it should be.

[dis]Honourable Mentions:

  • Differently-abled
  • Handicapable
  • Cripple
  • Invalid

What other words should be added to the list? Let me know in the comments.

11 Comments

  1. So interesting. I write grants for an organization that serves individuals with facial differences and many of the grant templates I encounter ask who the audience is that you serve include cohorts like, youth, older adults, and people with disabilities. I don’t see the community I serve people with disabilities, yet, to the funder this is the category that often aligns with my end goal of presenting a compelling reason to fund the people we serve. Thank you for wisdom.

    1. Good question! I’d use the term of the person’s individual disability, like saying “the student with autism” or “a disabled child.” Naming the disability is not a bad thing because disability isn’t negative and saying “disability” or “autism” [or blindness, etc] often brings more clarity and doesn’t “other” the person. I hope that helps.

    2. Either “Disability” or “Accommodations” would be more appropriate depending on how you’re using it. “Accommodations” to address an individuals human needs. Or simply a “person with a disability or disabilities” instead of a “person with special needs”.

  2. Thank you. I have worked with people with disabilities for many years. My focus is always to use “people first” language. I do recall when I thought using the term “differently-abled” was as okay, but I have learned better. Thank you for educating me. Please continue to share this great information!

  3. What’s your take on “neurodivergent”? How might you describe a group of individuals (that is, you are unaware of the specifics of their situations) with gait disorders, paralysis or other motor disorders (for whom the term “physically disabled” is often used)?

    1. It does really depend, and the best thing to do is to ask the individual[s] how they want to be addressed. Neurodivergent, as a term, is totally fine, and while I’m not part of that group myself, I know people who use that term to describe their conditions. Neurodivergent though deals with differences in cognitive behaviours to my understanding, and I think what you’re describing may [in some cases] still be considered physical disabilities, but I suppose it’s more about what the root cause of the disability is.

  4. I’ve been a Person with what is considered a severe Disability for 17 years. For the most part I would agree with your article, however, I work as an Inspirational Speaker. For a period of time I utilized “Motivational” on my business card, but my goal with every speech is to Inspire my audiences to view concepts of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, & Belonging through a Disability Lens and to make the world more Accessible for all. There is motivation in that, but motivation is not as long term as inspiration…something you live every day. Yes, we must be on guard against “inspiration-porn” but we must also be able to use our disabilities as strengths and inspire others to be resilient in the face of adversity and traumatic situations (in what ever form they present themselves) and to make on going impactful social change for all people with disabilities; which ultimately supports all people, as most will develop some form of disability throughout their lives through either trauma or natural conditions of aging.

    In regards to the word “Disabled”, which many in the Disability Community use interchangeably with “Disability” or “Person with Disabilities”, I struggle to see how our community has accepted this term. I understand that many people who are born with their Disabilities feel it is an accurate description of who they are, but I struggle with this, because the word literally means “non-functioning” and can be applied to a broken lawn mower, car, or other equipment that no longer serves its purpose. It would not be accurate to apply the word “Disability” to a broken piece of equipment, a lawn mower that doesn’t work does not have a Disability. I believe that it creates a great deal of confusion when an individual or group refers to themselves/identifies as “Disabled”. For a child who has learned that “disabled” means non-functional, when a person identifies as “Disabled” the child automatically assumes they don’t function, or is confused about why someone they know and interact with is described as non-functional. When you teach the child concepts of Disability and someone is identified to them as a Person with a Disability, they understand that this is a person who regularly confronts challenges that they do not, and who does things in a different way to achieve the same goals.

    I believe that we need to approach these changes in language from both directions. People with Disabilities make up the largest, most diverse, and exponentially growing minority in the world. There is a tremendous strength in that, but we must approach these concepts from a unified front. It diminishes our strength when we represent ourselves as non-functional individuals or a non-functional community. I understand the concept of changing the world view of “Disabled”, but we cloud the issue and make the challenge so much more difficult by choosing a word that has other uses to describe things that don’t function. The word Disability is far more clearly defined and only applies to our people.

    1. We need a more positive term to replace “disabled” such as “individually challenged”. In order to get federal benefits and access to special education, negative statutory labels are required. The whole system needs to be challenged to be more positive and inclusive for those with special needs.

      1. Many people in the disability community, including myself, prefer the term disabled. It’s not negative or discriminatory because saying that we’re disabled doesn’t imply that we’re less-than, but that our disabilities are apart of who we are.

        Individually challenged doesn’t make sense to me. I’ve been contemplating it and it seems to imply that my individuality and my personhood is challenged or called into question [think of how “directionally-challenged, vertically-challenged etc have been used to describe others] but that isn’t true; my identity as a person has nothing to do with my disability, so I think that term actually does more damage to the community.

        I’d encourage you to talk to more people who live with disabilities and ask what term they prefer. Not everyone wants disabled and that is their choice, but from my experience, the majority do.

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