Opinions vary on how to refer to people with disabilities. Sometimes well-meaning people disagree on what language is disability-friendly. The best words to use, of course, are the ones disabled people themselves prefer.
This overview of language about disability can help you stay up to date.
Person First or Identity First?
Some disability groups, such as the controversial group Autism Speaks, will tell you to always put the person first. Thus, you’d write “people with disabilities” or “adults with diabetes.”
The logic is “I am more than my disability. I want people to see me as a person first, without letting my disability define me.”
However, there’s more to the story.
When was the last time you talked about a “person with deafness?” Or a “boy with blindness?”
It sounds awkward, doesn’t it?
Some groups prefer identity-first language. This means saying things like “disabled people” or “autistic adult.”
When people say they prefer identity-first language, they’re saying “My disability is not bad or degrading. You don’t have to distance it from me to see me as a whole person. You can use it as a normal adjective like ‘tall’ or ‘gay.’ It’s another part of me.”
Both groups have a point.
How can we respect both?
First of all, some communities have clear preferences.
The Deaf, Blind, and Autistic communities have expressed clear preferences for identity-first language. Many of them don’t see their conditions as awful diseases, but as unique ways of experiencing the world. Thus, we say “deaf person” instead of “person with deafness.”
But in terms of illnesses and acquired disorders, people usually prefer person-first language. Diseases like hemophilia and Lyme disease aren’t really identities, but unwanted baggage on an otherwise ordinary person. The disorder isn’t a big part of who they are. Thus, we’d say “person with diabetes” instead of “diabetic person” or just “diabetic.”
What about communities where there are mixed opinions, like “disabled people” versus “people with disabilities?” To respect both preferences, you can use a mix of both.
Of course, when it comes to individuals, you can always ask them if they have a preference.
Pandering language like “differently-abled,” “special needs,” and “handicapable” isn’t necessary. This often comes across as patronizing. “Disability” isn’t a bad word and it’s better to simply use that.
It’s best to say “disabled people” or “people with disabilities” instead of “the disabled,” just like how we say “Asian people” instead of “the Asians” or “gay people” instead of “the gays.”
Disabled people aren’t usually victims or heroes. For example, saying someone “suffers from a disability” or is “confined to a wheelchair” paints them as a victim. Saying that they’re “overcoming disability” or that they’re being “brave and inspiring” for doing ordinary things also treats them like they aren’t normal. You can say factual things like “she uses a wheelchair” or “he’s blind and he wrote three books.”
Don’t call them “patients” if they aren’t actually in a doctor’s office. They’re just people.
Skip outdated language like “handicapped,” “retard(ed),” “mentally/physically challenged,” “crippled,” and other words that have fallen off the euphemism treadmill. Many people find them insulting.
Remember that people with disabilities are normal people. If you want to refer to people without disabilities, try saying “non-disabled people,” “able-bodied people” (for people without physical disabilities), or “neurotypical people” (for people without mental disabilities).
The National Center on Disability and Journalism offers an in-depth style guide.
For an informative guide with fun pictures, check out wikiHow’s article on disability and language.
The Northwest ADA Center has a helpful guide that also includes advice and cartoons about being polite in in-person interactions.
Choosing disability-friendly language empowers people with disabilities. Learning the basics helps you make a statement for respect and inclusion.