Disability and language


The words that we use to talk about people with disability are important. But there are also times when we aren’t meaning to talk about disability – but use words that come from the history of how people with disability have been treated.

Some of these words can be very hurtful when used today and upsetting to people with disability and their families –  and they can affect how other people think about people with disability.  Those historical words, when used today, suggest that nothing has changed in our society’s attitude and reinforce prejudice based on that history. Those words can also affect how people with disability feel about themselves … today.

If you are talking to a person with a disability, it’s important to find out what words that person likes other people to use. Not everyone who has a disability likes the same words.

Should you say “people with disability” or “disabled people”?

Some people want to be called “disabled people” because they want other people to understand that disability is the first thing they should know about them (“identity-first” language).   Another reason they may prefer the term “disabled” is because they say it helps others to understand that the way that things are organised in the world around them is what “disables” them rather than any physical, mental or cognitive difference.

Other people want to be called “people with disability” (“person-first” language), because for a long time others did not see anything else about them, they just saw their disability and did not see them as people.

People with disability is the term used most of the time on the Sa4i website because it is the term used in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, but sometimes we might also use “disabled people” to recognise that some people prefer it.

Autistic, Deaf, person with Down syndrome and other preferred language 

Some groups of people with particular types of disability choose to use “identity-first language”, while others groups prefer “person-first” language.  For example, some people call themselves “Autistic” and other people call themselves a “person with Autism”.  Some groups agree on the terms they prefer, like “person with Down syndrome” is what people with Down syndrome prefer.  “Deaf person” or “blind person” are the preferred terms for those groups.

Sometimes people with disability will use words to talk about themselves that they do not like other people outside their group to use. An example is the word “crip”.  This is called “reclaiming” a word that has been used in a negative way for a while, by giving it a positive meaning within the group.  This can be a way of showing pride as a person with a disability and as a member of a group of people with disability.  Respect that they may like to use these terms themselves, but may not want you to use them.

The most important thing is to use the words that each person with disability chooses to use.

Words that are NEVER ok to use

There are some words that are never ok to use.  Some were used for a long time, even in the medical world, but that most people with disability today find insulting.  They include “retarded” or “mentally retarded”, “idiot” “imbecile”, “moron”, “mongoloid”, “spastic” or “spaz”, “dumb”, “sped” and “midget”.  Many of these words are used often as casual insults in playgrounds in relation to non-disabled people, but that does not make their use right.  Because by using these words we are reinforcing the history and treatment of people with disability.  We are reinforcing the history that affects society’s response today to people with disability.

We need to use the right and respectful language today to break the prejudice that comes from the historical treatment of people with disability.

Words to AVOID and some replacements

There are other words that are not as offensive but are not a good choice because of how they make people with disability feel and how they make other people think about disability.

Some of these words are “suffer”, “stricken”, “afflicted”, “inspirational, “brave”, “tragic”, “overcoming”, “dependent”, “sick”, “victim”, “patient”, etc. Most people with disability don’t want to be seen in this way because it suggests that disability is about burden, medical issues and negative – or on the other hand the words suggest that people with disability are inspirational objects just for having a disability.

People with disability are people. They are individuals with hopes, dreams, worth and the same human rights as everyone else.

Here are some other words to avoid, and some suggested alternatives.

  1. Avoid:  Handicapped, invalid, physically challenged … Use Instead: person with disability/disabled person
  2. Avoid:  Wheelchair-bound, confined to a wheelchair”  … Use Instead: wheelchair user
  3. Avoid:  Birth defect, deformity … Use Instead: Disability
  4. Avoid: Attack, spell, fit … Use Instead: 
  5. Avoid: Visually impaired… Use Instead: Blind, partially sighted or low vision (as best fits the person)
  6. Avoid: Brain damaged … Use Instead: Person who has a brain injury
  7. Avoid: Attack, fit … Use Instead: Seizure
  8. Avoid: Crazy, insane, mad, unsound mind, demented, maniac, deviant … Use Instead: Person with a mental health disability
  9. Avoid: Differently abled, diffable … Use Instead: Disabled, person with disability
  10. Avoid: Dwarf … Use Instead: Person of short stature
  11. Avoid: Normal … Use Instead: Non-disabled person
  12. Avoid: Tongue tied or mute Use Instead: person with a communication disability, person who is non-speaking
As with everyone in the word, see and get to know the person for who they are – don’t let yourself be influenced by historic labels and the prejudice that comes with them.

An Open Letter for Inclusive Education Written by a 10 Year Old

Inclusion activist and one of the co-founders of Sa4i Student Alliance 4 Inclusion wrote an open letter to politicians to ask them to commit to making our schools inclusive when they were 10. The letter talks about ending the segregated education of students with disabilities, as it has become normalised and accepted by modern society, despite it being a breach of human rights and a discriminatory practice against people with disability. Segregated education, often labelled as ‘Special Education’, is a significant social justice issue that is often ignored.

The key points made in this article are:

  • It is a human rights violation to segregate students with a disability, which is explained by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities in its General Comment No. 4 under the CRPD (the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
  • Over 40 years of research has shown that students with disability do better socially and academically when in a regular classroom setting, as opposed to a ‘special’ classroom, so the whole idea of segregation yielding better outcomes is flawed.
  • Students who learn with other students who are different to them grow up to be more empathetic, compassionate and non-discriminatory people than those who learn with children who are ‘like them’.

You can read the full letter below:

Why all children should be welcomed in regular classrooms – especially children with disabilities! (written in 2018)

How would you feel if you were shut away in a place and not allowed to be with everyone else?  This happens everyday for many students with disabilities and is wrong for a great many reasons. First, it is a human rights violation!  Decades of research have proven that children with disabilities learn better when they are together with all of us.  So why would this be taken away from them? In addition, all kids become more empathetic if they grow up together with children who are different to them.

Every single child has a right to an “inclusive education”. This right to learn together with everyone from your community is found in a United Nations treaty, which Australia and 175 (now 181) other countries signed. In 2016 the United Nations said the treaty established a fundamental human right for every child to learn in an inclusive classroom and that being put in a separate “special” classroom is not inclusive, but in fact segregation.

For over 40 years research has shown that kids with disabilities learn more in regular classrooms than in “special” classrooms. One reason is because teachers in regular classrooms expect more of all their students. In addition, kids with disabilities can learn more from other kids that are not disabled by working together and the other way round.  So “special” schools do not help kids with disability learn faster or more.

Kids who have experience of other kids who are different from them when they are young are more likely to grow up being tolerant and understanding of difference. This is because kids naturally try to help and understand other people, especially before they develop prejudice from others, like adults. “Special” schools put all the kids with disabilities in one place and make it hard for other kids to learn about disability or difference. This all means that “special” schools actually decrease tolerance and empathy in our community.

In my view, there is no good reason to keep “special” schools. They were created a long time ago when people thought kids with disabilities couldn’t learn, would never get a job and couldn’t live in the community. Times have changed and kids with disabilities have the same rights as all other kids, to go to the same schools as everyone else. Italy closed all its “special” schools in 1978. This shows us it can be done!

Laura 🙂

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