How To Talk About Disability

Esi HardyAttitudes, Business, Communication, LanguageLeave a Comment

2 women talking round a table - How to talk about disability

Where to Start with Disability Language

I think so much of what prevents society and business engaging with disabled people is down to a lack of confidence with the language.  It could seem to an onlooker that the language surrounding disability is complicated and inflammatory and therefore sometimes, easier to avoid having a conversation altogether than potentially making a mistake and offending somebody.

When running disability awareness sessions, a large proportion of the session is often filled with discussions around this topic.  As language is so fluid, especially language around disability, it changes so often.  Because the disability movement is developing and disability advocates have a greater voice than in the past, we are speaking up about what inclusive language actually means and why it is important.

To compound the confusion, different countries use different terms to describe disability. For example, in the US, it is popular to say persons with disabilities. They also commonly use the term handicapped which in the UK is a big no-no and has been for several years.  In other countries, they use terms such as differently abled.

But whilst this may be an interesting read and an interesting discussion topic, it is still very important to understand the background to the language, terms and words we use when describing disability.  When reading biographies, business books, books about diversity and even crime podcasts, I still come across terms describing disability that make me cringe. This comes from the unknown, not doing enough research and not having enough information to make an informed decision about the impact of the word.  I have written quite a few articles on the impact of the language we choose to describe disability.  Because essentially, the words we use to describe anything, seep into our unconscious and inform our thoughts.  And our thoughts inform our actions.  Therefore, when we are in the workplace and serving our “handicapped” customer, we may unconsciously be thinking about that customer in a different way than we are thinking about our non-disabled customer.  The word many make us think that the customer is not that important or that the customer should be pitied.

Popular Terms

Below are a few words that are associated with disability and the meaning and history behind the words. You may have some terms yourself that resonate with you. If so, please let me know what they are.

Handicapped

This term dates back to the reign of Henry VII.  During this time, disabled people, unable to earn a living to support themselves would beg on the street.  This was done with a cap in hand.

Synonyms of handicapped: crippled, disadvantaged, blocked, burdened, deterred, restrained, obstructed

Spastic

Scotland founded the Scottish Society of the Care of Spastics in 1946.  England’s Spastic Society was founded in 1951.  

However, even earlier than this, the term “spastic” comes from the Latin term spasticus which translates as “afflicted with spasms”.  The term is medical terminology which describes the symptoms of a person with cerebral palsy.

Synonyms of spastic: debilitated, paralysed, sick, atonic, diseased

Person With a Disability

The terminology “person with the disability” comes from the person first theory. I have discussed this in another blog.  The decision for a disabled person to identify themselves as a person with a disability or disabled person is a personal choice and neither is right or wrong. However, as I have discussed before in a previous blog, within the disabled community there are very split views.

Wheelchair Bound

A person who is wheelchair-bound is bound to their wheelchair. In other words, that person cannot get out.  This is never really the case as a person using a wheelchair full-time still will leave their wheelchair to use the toilet, go to bed, etc.

Synonyms of bound: constraints, enslaved, obligated, restrained, compelled, coerced

Preferred term: wheelchair user

Disabled

I know of disabled people who do not like the term disabled. This is because as mentioned, the synonyms surrounding the term are all negative.  Thinking back to what I was saying earlier about thoughts seeping into our unconscious, this would mean that whenever somebody used the term “disabled” it would be synonymous with negative thoughts.

Whilst I understand this thought pattern, I prefer the term disabled for other reasons as I have shared before.  I also believe that as with other words from other diverse backgrounds, it is time for us as disabled people to reclaim the term.  Therefore, instead of seeing disability as a negative, we can continue to redefine the term to be positive.

However, this certainly does not discount the fact that the results of disability can at times, for different people in different ways be incredibly limiting.  Whether it is due to chronic pain, limited mobility, cognitive processes or many other barriers resulting from the symptoms of disability.

Synonyms of disabled: handicapped, infirm, paralysed, wounded, disarmed, maimed, sidelined, powerless

Able-bodied

The term able-bodied can be an accurate definition but very rarely it is used accurately.  An able-bodied person is a person who does not have any physical impairment.  In other words, their body is able.  However, this is still sketchy territory because some bodies are more able than others: an Olympic swimmer is more able than a novice.  The term able-bodied is often used to describe someone with no obvious impairment which can lead to potential inaccuracy.

Synonyms of able-bodied: athletic, brawny, powerful, robust, strapping, sturdy, powerhouse, ripped, well built, tough

Preferred term: non-disabled

Collective Labels and Positive Language

At times, people have been known to talk about disabled people as a collective.  For example, “the disabled”.  This term should always be avoided because disabled people do not want to be grouped together as one.  The preferred term would be disabled people (or people with disabilities, depending on which term you prefer).

Always use positive language when talking about disability and disabled people.  Questions such as “What’s wrong with you?” Should be avoided because it is suggesting that there is something wrong with the individual and as we have discussed, disability is not a punishment nor is it any illness. Similarly, comments such as “You do so well” are not appropriate.  This is because they imply that disability is a struggle.  Whereas, for many people, our impairment is part of our everyday.

If you are interested in finding out more about how to talk about and feel confident when talking about disability, have a look at our training page or get in touch

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