Disabled Person vs. Person With Disabilities: Why Language Matters
Last Updated: 22 Mar 2023
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How to use inclusive language, and why it matters.
The word “disabled” comes with a host of damaging stereotypes, assumptions, and discriminatory practices.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 4 adults in the United States have some type of disability. Texas, specifically, has the 2nd largest number of individuals with disabilities in the US. It’s a common, normal part of human life. But sometimes the way people talk about disabilities can be insensitive and harmful.
We know it can seem small, but words have power. Even when it’s unintentional, negative language can lead to discrimination, abuse, neglect, marginalization, disenfranchisement, and violence.
When the Americans With Disabilities Act was signed into law in July of 1990, it prohibited “discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, transportation, public accommodations, commercial facilities, telecommunications, and state and local government services.”
The term “people with disabilities” was relatively new in 1990, and continues to become more commonplace as organizations, service providers, and disability advocacy groups work to increase empowerment and respect through language.
What Is People-First Language?
The way we refer to people living with disabilities comes down to whether we’re putting the person first, or their disability first.
When we say “disabled person” or “handicapped person,” we’re using disability-first language. This can be condescending, offensive, and dehumanizing.
On the other hand, when we say “person with disabilities,” that’s people-first language. People-first language refers to language that puts a person before a disability or diagnosis; it signals that their identity does not revolve around a disability.
Andrew Pulgrang, who writes on disability practices, policy, politics, and culture, explains in Forbes Magazine: “Terms like ‘differently abled,’ physically or mentally ‘challenged,’ ‘exceptional,’ and ‘special needs’ are generally well-intended, at least on the surface. But they are so obviously an effort to be kind, or nice, or positive and cheerleading that the effect on actual disabled people can be sentimental and condescending.”
If you are unsure how to refer to (or not refer to) a person’s disability – ASK! Some people may feel totally at ease disclosing their disability, while others may not want you to discuss it at all. Use their preference as your guide, as always respect their wants.
Common Types of Disabilities
Everyone’s disability is different, and there are many kinds of disabilities. Medical professionals tend to break them down into four categories:
- Mobility Disabilities
Examples: Cerebral Palsy, Epilepsy, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, Amputation, Spinal Injuries
- Psychiatric Disabilities
Examples: Schizophrenia, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Anxiety Disorders, Depression, Neurodevelopmental Disorders
- Learning Disabilities
Examples: Dyslexia, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
- Sensory Disabilities
Examples: Deafness, Blindness, Visual Impairments
Regardless of what type of disability a person has, how we talk about them and their disability matters. Many people who need disability benefits and services don’t identify with the word “disabled.” In this case, you might consider using a phrase like “people with health conditions or impairments,” if it feels appropriate.
How To Practice Disability-Inclusive Language
Despite our best intentions, we don’t always know what inclusive, people-first language actually looks like in conversation. In 2019, the United Nations Office launched an inclusion strategy to combat ableism and “foster the consistent use of respectful language” that we can also use as a guide in our everyday life! The strategy includes a list of 5 rules of thumb for using disability-inclusive language:
- Use People-First Language
When in doubt, ask the person how they choose to identify, and respect their language preference.
- Avoid Labels and Stereotypes
Words we may consider to be complementary and supportive (ie. superhuman, brave) can contribute to harmful stereotypes because it “implies that it is unusual for persons with disabilities to be successful and productive and to live happy and fulfilling lives.” Similarly, using words like “brave” and “overcome” when talking about a person with disabilities can come across as patronizing or pitying.
- Don’t Use Condescending Euphemisms
Language is constantly evolving, and there are many euphemisms that may have once been acceptable, but have been determined to be harmful and offensive. Avoid using terms like: “differently abled” or “special.”
- Remember: A Disability is Not an Illness or Problem
The word “victim” implies vulnerability and helplessness, neither of which are inherent to life with a disability. Similarly, phrases like “suffers from,” or “stricken with” can suggest powerlessness, when the truth is, people with disabilities can be highly empowered and experience a tremendous quality of life.
- Use Proper Language When Speaking and Writing
It’s okay to use colloquial phrases when talking to a person with a disability. Here are some great examples of phrases to use and phrases to avoid from the United Nations Office:
You can say “let’s go for a walk” to a person who uses a wheelchair or write “have you heard the news?” to a person who is deaf. However, phrases such as “blind as a bat” or “deaf as a post” are unacceptable and should never be used, even in informal contexts. You should also be careful with metaphors like “blind to criticism” and “to fall on deaf ears.”
We know that language can’t change everything, but it’s an important cornerstone of a more inclusive society. How we choose to speak individually can set an example for others and start a chain reaction of inclusivity. And just as negative language can inspire harmful action, inclusive language can spark vital change.
People-First Programs At Endeavors
At Endeavors, we’re on a mission to build a more inclusive workforce for professionals with disabilities. We serve people with diverse disabilities, providing them with housing assistance, job support, and behavioral health care. We also have an entire program dedicated to creating integrated, competitive employment opportunities for Texans with disabilities.
To learn more about our programs that serve people with disabilities, check out endeavors.org.
Looking to volunteer with Endeavors? Visit endeavors.org/volunteer/ to complete an application!
Endeavors is a longstanding national non-profit that provides an array of programs and services in support of children, families, Veterans, and those struggling with mental illness and other disabilities. Endeavors serves vulnerable people in crisis through innovative personalized services. Endeavors has been named a Leading Disability Employer multiple times, most recently in 2022. For more information, please visit endeavors.org.