Microphone pointing to a neon sign with blog title “what do you call a disabled person” against a brick wall in a stand-up comedy style

What Do You Call a Disabled Person

Esi Hardy 04/11/2019

Esi HardyAttitude & Inclusion, Language and CommunicationLeave a Comment

In this blog: The question: What Do You Call a Disabled Person is a fairly popular one. People often struggle to engage with disabled people due to fear of offending. Here’s what you can do…

Sounds like the start of a very bad joke, doesn’t it?  What Do You Call a Disabled Person? Well it’s not a joke.  Many people struggle to find the right words to use when describing a disabled person.  As a disabled person myself, I can empathise with this.  Usually for many of the reasons I have discussed before in previous articles such as this one here.  These discuss the fluidity of language and the point that what was acceptable fifteen years ago, isn’t always acceptable today. This means that we end up with a society that is afraid to broach the subject of disability at all.  I was recently in Zimbabwe where I came across a sign for an accessible parking bay that read “handicapped parking”.  I know it’s not really funny but I did have to take a photo.

What Do You Call a Disabled Person
Esi sitting beside a sign saying “Handicap Parking Only”

On this occasion, the sentiment was not one of disgust or distaste, it was simply the customary language in the country.  Now, I may have a personal opinion about the term handicapped but even I have to realise sometimes it is just a word used identify and not the attitudes of the people verbalising the words.

Identifiable Language – Calling a Spade a Spade

One reason people are so reluctant to engage with a disabled person is because they are so scared of offending.  But if you see a red Toyota parked outside your house, you don’t describe it as “a deep pink box with round shapes attached” you call it what it is – a car.  This is just the same.  If somebody describes me as a disabled person, I don’t think “Oh my gosh I never realised”, I think fairly accurate description.

Yes, as I discussed in a previous article, not everybody will identify themselves as a disabled person.  They may use other terms as ways of identification.  A quick and easy way to find out is to ask, starting a conversation (when appropriate) achieves two things; 1. The other person can see that you care, 2. You are diversifying your knowledge base.

Acknowledging a Disability

So many people say to me “I don’t see your disability”.  I know this is meant as a compliment but its not.  It’s an insult – a bit like saying “I like your earrings, my Granny has the same pair”.  

The connotation being that the earrings make you look old.  When someone suggests that they don’t see my disability, this is because they often think that disability is bad, wrong, ugly, undesirable in some way.  They are saying that I’m good/talented/worth being around despite my disability.  I am saying I’m worth all those things because of my disability.

People attribute their goals and achievements to upbringing, privilege, education.  Why not disability?

 I won’t repeat what has been said many times before by other disabled advocates including myself.  Simply put; a disabled person brings with them a diverse wealth of valuable skills.  I will say that if we continue to look at disability as anything but the status quo, society will never evolve.  Those people who complain about disabled people being extra work, consuming additional resource, not being up for the task or a good “culture fit” are short sighted.  Business relies on innovation to drive us forward.  Disabled people are innovators.  Haben Girma discusses this and offers examples in her talk Disability and Innovation: The Universal Benefits of Accessible Design.

So What Does This Mean for Business?

When we strip down all the buzzwords: diversity, intersectionality, impairment, inclusion, political correctness, inclusive language – what are we left with?  People, feelings and experiences.  Look upon society, your candidate, your customer, your colleague and your manager like that and all the rest will fall into place.

The Punchline

What Do You Call a Disabled Person?

Bill, Bob, Jo, Esi

Language is often a popular choice amongst clients enquiring about training. Many find that although their employees have a great attitude towards disabled people, understanding the appropriate language to use is often a barrier to engagement.  If you feel that your team could benefit from having extra support in this area, visit our training section or get in touch

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