What does “Respectful Disability Language” Mean?
“The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
— Mark Twain
The Disability Rights Movement advocates for positive changes in society. These changes include equal rights under the law and equal access to housing and employment. It could also mean improving how people with disabilities are talked about in places like the media or in everyday conversations. The use of language and words describing people with disabilities has changed over time. It’s important that people are aware of the meaning behind the words they use when talking to, referring to, or working with the Disability Community. Disrespectful language can make people feel excluded and can be a barrier to full participation. This is a guide to using respectful words and language.
When does Language = Power?
Imagine living your whole life always having to explain why the words that people use are hurtful and offensive to you. Teachers, co-workers, friends, and family need to know how the words and phrases they use make you feel. Many of us are brought up in homes in which we are the only one with a disability. Maybe we haven’t learned to think of ourselves or other people with disabilities as proud individuals. People with disabilities want respect and acceptance.
Many people who do not have a disability now will have one in the future. Others will have a family member or a friend who will become disabled. If you become disabled in your lifetime, how do you want people to describe you? If a family member or friend becomes disabled, how would you want him/her to be treated? Disability affects all people. So learn respectful language and teach others.
General Guidelines for Talking about Disability
- Refer to a person’s disability only when it is related to what you are talking about. For example, don’t ask “What’s wrong with you?” Don’t refer to people in general or generic terms such as “the girl in the wheelchair.”
- When talking about places with accommodations for people with disabilities, use the term “accessible” rather than “disabled” or “handicapped.” For example, refer to an “accessible” parking space rather than a “disabled” or “handicapped” parking space or “an accessible bathroom stall” rather than “a handicapped bathroom stall.”
- Use the term “disability,” and take the following terms out of your vocabulary when talking about or talking to people with disabilities. Don’t use the terms “handicapped,” “differently-abled,” “cripple,” “crippled,” “victim,” “retarded,” “stricken,” “poor,” “unfortunate,” or “special needs.”
- Just because someone has a disability, it doesn’t mean he/she is “courageous,” “brave,” “special,” or “superhuman.” People with disabilities are the same as everyone else. It is not unusual for someone with a disability to have talents, skills, and abilities.
- It is okay to use words or phrases such as “disabled,” “disability,” or “people with disabilities” when talking about disability issues. Ask the people you are with which term they prefer if they have a disability.
- When talking about people without disabilities, it is okay to say “people without disabilities.” But do not refer to them as “normal” or “healthy.” These terms can make people with disabilities feel as though there is something wrong with them and that they are “abnormal.”
- When in doubt, call a person with a disability by his/her name.
From Respectful Disability Language: Here’s What’s Up! (Click To View)
by National Youth Leadership Network (NYLN) and Kids As Self Advocates (KASA)