Understanding how to discuss topics involving disabilities, and how to address those with disabilities, is an important part of promoting equality and an inclusive environment. Our language is a strong influencer of how we perceive and feel about things, even when we don’t realize it.
Every word you hear or read has a meaning and feeling attached to it. In some cases, the associations are positive and they create images that are pleasant such as when using the words “light”, “hope”, “sun”, and “air”. Meanwhile, words like “crippled”, “dumb”, “insane”, and “retarded” cause feelings of pity and shame and images of broken, helpless people. This is not the picture that people with disabilities want, or should have, associated with them.
It is due to these negative associations that the Independent Living Resource Centre, and many other disability organizations, promote the use of words with dignity and person-first language. Not only does it remove words that have long-held negative stigma regarding persons with disabilities, it also puts the individual before their disability. This shows the importance of recognizing that a person is not the sum of their disability, but a whole and complex individual who happens to have a disability.
For example, if you are talking about people who have difficulty walking, instead of using the word “handicapped”, we would encourage the use of “people who use mobility supports”. If you’re specifically speaking of the wheelchair bound, use “people who use wheelchairs”. When discussing a blind person, use “person with a vision loss”. And, when talking about a person with a learning disability, do not refer to them as “slow”, use a “person with a learning disability“.
When in Doubt, Ask
There are times when a person will self-identify as a label that most people don’t feel comfortable with. There are people who don’t care if their loved ones call them a “cripple”, or “lame”. Relationships with words can be complex. What may not bother one person, may trigger negative feelings in another, and still carries a lot of stigma about persons with disabilities. This is why person-first language is important to know and use.
Keep in mind, you may encounter a disability that is new to you, where you’re unsure of the words to use. Also, appropriate terminology changes with the times. If you are ever in doubt, it never hurts to ask.