‘Differently Abled’ vs ‘Disabled’ in Today’s Conversation – Which is it?

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In our ever-evolving world, the words we choose to describe ourselves and others carry profound significance.

The terms “differently abled” and “disabled” carry a history, a set of connotations, and a power that shapes our perceptions and interactions.

The article explores the historical backgrounds, societal effects, and personal identities these phrases shape, going into their details and preferences while conversing.

Differently Abled vs Disabled

Historical Context and Evolution of Terms

Words are precious threads in the fabric of human language; they convey more than just meaning and convey perception, identity, and the past.

Historically, the term “handicapped” was the go-to descriptor, a straightforward reference to individuals with mental or physical disabilities. However, as awareness grew, so did the desire for language that encapsulated more than just the limitations faced by these individuals.

In the 1990s, healthcare and disability activists introduced the term “differently abled” as a substitute for “disabled or handicapped,” aiming to emphasize abilities over disabilities, signaling a shift towards a more inclusive and respectful narrative.

But the term’s usage declined in the middle of the 2000s, and today, many people with disabilities find it condescending or insulting.

Explore our in-depth discussion here to understand better the arguments around the terms “disabled person” and “person with a disability,” as well as the subtleties of viewpoint and preference.

The Debate: Differently Abled vs. Disabled

At first glance, “differently abled” and “disabled” might seem interchangeable, but they convey distinct connotations.

“Differently abled” suggests a spectrum of abilities unique to each individual, challenging the notion that disability equates to a lack of ability.

Disabled freelancer working in a cafe

On the other hand, “disabled” is often seen as a more straightforward, albeit clinical, description of someone with a physical or mental impairment that significantly restricts daily activities.

The Contrast in Perception

The contrast between these terms extends beyond meanings; it’s about perception.

“Differently abled” is often seen as a more positive, empowering term, focusing on what individuals can do rather than what they can’t. In contrast, “disabled” can be perceived as a label that focuses on limitations.

However, some argue that “differently abled” can be vague and euphemistic, potentially undermining the real challenges faced by disabled individuals. Such a distinction is essential in understanding how language shapes our perception of ability and disability.

Person-First vs. Identity-First Language

Central to this discussion is the concept of person-first language (“person with a disability”) versus identity-first language (“disabled person”).

Person-first language emphasizes the individual before the disability, suggesting that the disability is just one aspect of the person’s identity. In contrast, identity-first language embraces the disability as an integral component of an individual’s identity, which is popular within the disability community.

It means that the choice of language is deeply personal and varies based on individual preferences and cultural contexts.

Diverse Perspectives: Community, Activists, and Professionals

The debate between “differently abled” and “disabled” is nuanced and deeply personal.

Some within the disability community prefer “disabled,” as it straightforwardly acknowledges the challenges they face. Others advocate for “differently abled,” seeing it as a more positive and empowering term.

Medical Professionals and Disability Activists View

People associated with health and human services, and disability activists offer varied perspectives.

Some medical experts emphasize the clinical accuracy of “disabled” or “first-person language,” while activists often argue for language that uplifts and empowers. 

The diversity of these opinions highlights the complexity of language and identity in the context of disabilities.

Personal Narratives: The Impact of Language

On a personal level, the language used to describe one’s condition can profoundly affect one’s self-perception and life experiences.

Hearing directly from individuals living with disabilities offers invaluable insights.

For instance, a blind person might share how the term ‘visually impaired’ affects their self-identity, or an autistic individual might express a preference for an ‘autistic person’ over a ‘person with autism.’

A few responses from the disability community are shared below.

Aaron Ansuini, a YouTuber suffering from autism, shared in his video that he doesn’t prefer being called differently abled and would happily accept being called a disabled person.

Virali Modi, a woman who has paralysis, shared her view on a forum that she doesn’t like the term ‘differently abled.’ She believes that some people use this term to their advantage, as it implies that someone can perform tasks in a way that suits their needs. For instance, someone who uses a wheelchair but refuses to learn to become independent with a physical disability may argue about it.

Elizabeth Wright, a disability activist and Paralympic medalist, says that in an ableist world, disabilities make life more complex, not more interesting. She criticizes the term “differently abled” for trivializing the real struggles disabled people face due to societal ableism.

All these examples show that these terms are more than words; they reflect unique experiences and identities, as personal narratives within the disability community emphasize.

Expert Opinions and Studies

Expert views from local government services and research provide helpful insights into this issue when we go into the academic and professional sectors.

Medical professionals and researchers, like those from the National Institute of Health, provide a scientific perspective on the implications of different terminologies.

Their research helps us understand our words’ psychological and social impacts, grounding our discussion in evidence-based findings.

Insights from Psychology and Sociology

Psychologists and sociologists contribute to this conversation by exploring how language influences social dynamics and individual psychology.

Their studies, often published in journals and at conferences, shed light on how terms like “autistic person” or “person with autism” affect societal attitudes and the self-esteem of individuals.

The research underscores the importance of choosing a language that empowers and respects the diverse experiences of people with disabilities.

Global Perspectives and Cultural Differences

The conversation around disability and language is not confined to any single culture or region; it’s a global dialogue.

Different cultures have their own ways of understanding and describing disability, as seen in the varied worldwide terminology. 

For example, the approach to disability in a country like Japan refers to the person as “shōgaisha,” which directly translates to “disabled person,” commonly used and may differ significantly from that in the United States, reflecting broader cultural attitudes and values.

In Brazil, the term “pessoa com deficiência” (person with a disability) is commonly used, reflecting a person-first approach.

Cultural Variations in Terminology

Exploring these cultural variations reveals a rich tapestry of perspectives on disability.

In some cultures, the term “disabled” might be accepted without the negative connotations it holds in others. 

Conversely, terms like “differently abled” might be preferred in societies that emphasize the abilities and potential of individuals.

So, such diversity in language and perception highlights the importance of understanding and respecting cultural contexts in discussions about disability.

Then, what is the politically correct term for disabled people?

The most politically correct term is the one the individual in question prefers according to a person’s disability.

It’s about respecting personal choice, and the language individuals feel it best represents.


In conclusion, the debate between ‘differently abled’ and ‘disabled’ is more than a linguistic choice; it reflects our society’s evolving understanding of diversity and inclusivity.

As we move forward, it’s essential to continue to listen to and learn from people with disabilities, respect individual preferences, eliminate potentially offensive terms, and use language that empowers and dignifies all individuals.

The choice of words matters, and we all share the responsibility to use language that reflects our commitment to equality and respect for all.