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Disability Etiquette, part 2 – Terminology (or “what words to use”)

A child pointing to a group of identical people in wheelchairs, saying to his mother "Oh look - it's the disabled!"

With thanks to "Crippen" -

Following on in this series of disability etiquette (first one here) is the sometimes thorny issue of terminology. For example, what do we call disabled people? Even on this issue there is some disagreement, although there are some definite no-nos. Please do not call us “handicapped”, “crippled”, “retarded” or “the disabled”! In the UK the correct term would be disabled people (the last sentence but one might have indicated this). This relates to the social model of disability (see this blog) – people are disabled by society, not just by their impairments. However, if you go to the USA and say “disabled people” you will be pulled up very quickly. They believe that we are people first, and disabled second, so they refer to us as “People with Disabilities” or PWD for short. So long as we use terminology which isn’t offensive, I’m not sure it matters that much. I tend to use disabled people nearly all of the time, unless I’m communicating with an exclusively USA audience. And, generally, I’d rather use people’s names than any label, but that’s not always appropriate when we are talking about practice!

Other words best avoided are “suffers from”. Rather than saying a person “suffers from” depression, multiple sclerosis or schizophrenia, for example, say they “have” those conditions, if relevant. Or a person “with” a particular condition. They may well suffer, but that’s up to them to say, not other people. Avoid any disempowering words like “she’s a victim of AIDS”. Many people who would be included in the legal definition of disability according to the Equality Act 2010 don’t consider themselves disabled at all (for example, many Deaf people) and this has to be respected.

Some terminology has changed over the years, as the terms became used as an insult. The word “Mongol” used to describe a person with Down’s Syndrome, but is no longer used because of the negative connotations it has developed. Similarly the word “spastic” has been replaced with someone with Cerebral Palsy (even The Spastic Society renamed itself as Scope). Other terms have changed over time as well – what we now know as bi-polar used to be called manic depression. It’s as well to be aware of these issues to avoid offending people.

A common trap which people can sometimes fall into is to describe someone as “wheelchair bound” or “confined to a wheelchair”. Most people who use wheelchairs find their chair is a means of liberation, not containment. Without their wheelchair, many people would be completely immobile, and others would have their mobility severely curtailed. Wheelchair-user is much more appropriate.

All this might make you feel like you have to walk on egg shells not to offend people. That really isn’t the case, just a bit of thought is required. As ever, if in doubt, ask the person what terminology they prefer. Don’t worry about saying “I’ll see you soon” to a blind or sight-impared person – most would say that themselves and won’t be offended. If people know you are genuinely not meaning to offend, they will forgive the odd slip. However, if your behaviour generally is patronising or judgmental and you also use inappropriate terminology people may well question your motives.

If you are concerned about any issues around terminology – please ask here. I’d much rather people ask than avoid the issue altogether as that can be very isolating for people.

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