Talking about and referring to a person’s disability is a delicate subject. We avoid having essential discussions about disability because people are afraid to say the wrong thing. As a result, such avoidance fosters a toxic environment.
The best way to refer to people with disabilities is a matter of debate, with two competing views. Let’s dig in to find out.
The Evolution of Disability Terminology
The term “disability” has changed a lot throughout the years, mirroring significant shifts in how people think about and talk about the condition. Disabled people’s dignity and autonomy are now honored by replacing negative language with more inclusive terminology.
Such a shift reflects a more profound societal change, recognizing the dignity and agency of individuals with disabilities.
Person-first and identity-first languages emerged as key concepts in linguistic evolution.
The Impact of Language on Perception and Identity
The words we use to discuss disabilities can significantly shape societal perceptions and attitudes.
Terms like ‘mental illness’, ‘physical disability’, or ‘bipolar disorder’ are not just descriptors; they carry connotations that can influence how society views and treats those with disabilities.
Similarly, the language we use can impact how individuals with disabilities see themselves, affecting their self-esteem and sense of identity.
For an in-depth review of why some phrases, such as ‘handicapped,’ are regarded as offensive, as well as the value of polite language, read our article on ‘Why is Handicapped Offensive.’
Disabled Person or Person with Disability: A Matter of Preference
The debate between ‘disabled person’ and ‘person with disability’ has more than just meaning. It’s about perspective and preference.
Some argue that a ‘person with disability’ highlights personhood first, avoiding defining someone solely by their disability. Others advocate for the ‘disabled person’, asserting that it doesn’t diminish personhood but rather acknowledges the disability as an integral part of their identity.
Person first language
People-first is the term most commonly used to describe people with disabilities, introduced by the Germans.
Certain groups inside government and nonprofit organizations support the use of person-first language. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a prime example of a law prioritizing the needs of those with disabilities. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is also the terminology.
By mentioning the individual or group before the handicap, “people-first” language focuses on the person rather than the disability. We may say things like “persons with disabilities,” “students with dyslexia,” “women with intellectual disabilities,” and “children with albinism.”
On the other hand, not all impairments are covered under the “people-first” policy. Of course, there are exceptions.
For example, we can use “blind persons” or “persons who are blind” to describe someone visually impaired; similarly, we can say “deafblind persons” to represent someone who is deaf.
In identity-first language, or disability-first language, the term “a person with” is replaced with the adjective form of an impairment.
Members of the autistic, deaf, and blind groups, among others, favor the identity-first language method.
An example of identity-first language would be using the term “autistic child” rather than “child with autism.
Deciding Between the Two Approaches: Which one is better?
We are never static as a people, and neither is our language. However, there are some ground rules to adhere to when discussing disabilities.
It is better to use the person-first language approach when addressing people directly. If you are unsure, ask them their preference.
Some individuals may still feel offended when their disabilities are mentioned before their personal information; thus, it’s safer to use person-first language instead of identity-first language.
While asking may appear uncomfortable or odd, it is truly a gesture of respect.
Writing and Documentation
When writing about disability, consult a style guide from the relevant organization or community, such as one shared by the ADA, for language guidance.
If unsure and addressing a general audience, person-first language is usually safer, as it’s more familiar to non-disabled people. However, some groups, like the Deaf, blind, and autistic communities, often prefer an identity-first language.
Language as a Tool for Empowerment and Respect
Language has the power to empower and respect individuals with disabilities.
When we use terms reflecting their preferences and identities, we are not just being polite; we recognize their agency and experiences.
By choosing our words carefully, we can contribute to a more inclusive and understanding society where the abilities and contributions of all individuals are recognized and valued.
Avoid odd language
Words like “differently-abled” and “diverse-ability” imply that being open and honest about disability is unacceptable. It might even lead others to believe that people with disabilities are ashamed of themselves or that we should sugarcoat the issue so that it is more acceptable to discuss.
Also, terms like “victim” connote weakness and helplessness, neither of which are inherent in living with an impairment. Similarly, “suffers from” or “stricken with” might imply weakness. So, it is better to avoid such terms.
Diverse Voices: What People Prefer
Understanding the language preferences of people with disabilities is not a one-size-fits-all approach.
Findings from interviews and surveys show a range of preferences, with some leaning toward identity-first terminology and others toward person-first language.
A human rights activist, William Adkins, wrote on a forum that there is no answer other than the person’s name, sir, or anything else you would call anyone else with respect.
Alice C, a woman with autism, mentioned that she doesn’t mind being referred to as “autistic,” “on the spectrum,” “Asperger’s,” or “neurodivergent.”. She also added that when someone calls her “sick,” “crazy,” or “abnormal,” it is unacceptable and would result in them choosing not to continue the conversation.
Amy Oulton, a woman with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, shared her experience on TedTalk about being called different names and how she coped.
The discussion on disability language highlights an important point: the words we use have an impact.
The various perspectives within the disability community respect individual choices when choosing a language, whether person-first or identity-first.
We may help create a more accepting and inclusive environment by choosing language that honors and empowers those with disabilities.
Let’s bring about change globally, recognize that people with disabilities have different perspectives and experiences, and use our voices to make the world better for everyone.
To further understand the impact of language on our perception of disabilities, read our discussion on ‘Differently Abled vs Disabled’.