The Language of Disability

The Language of Disability

            One impediment to talking about disability is that people are unsure what are the ‘right’ words to use. This fact sheet is a primer on language, with two caveats: (a) language is fluid and changes as new ideas emerge; (b) don’t get tongue-tied with fear of using ‘wrong’ words.

Health versus Disability: These are separate but interrelated concepts It is possible to be very healthy and still have a disability (e.g., ADHD) or to have a disability that affects health (e.g., Lupus). Significant health issues usually are associated with some impairment to function (e.g., COPD). The World Health Organization (WHO) focuses on health and functioning, i.e., being as healthy as possible and maintaining the highest possible level of functioning. Therefore knowing the cause of a condition is less valuable than understanding its effects on health and functioning.

The WHO makes a key distinction among impairment, handicap, and disability:

Impairment: Some disruption at the system level of an organ in the body, like the brain or the left leg, that leads to loss of use or some variation from a norm. Impairments are not ‘defects,’ and they can be psychological, physiological or anatomical; some are permanent, others are temporary. Knowing the impairment leads to figuring out appropriate accommodations.

Handicap: A handicap is an obstacle that affects disabled people by blocking them from completing a task or a role. Thus, a disabled person can be handicapped—that is, disadvantaged—by a missing ramp, but the handicap does not reside within the person.

Disability: “Disability results from the interaction between individuals with a health condition such as cerebral palsy, down syndrome and depression as well as personal and environmental factors including negative attitudes, inaccessible transportation and public buildings, and limited social support.” (WHO). As such, disability is not a feature of the person but of the interaction of the person and the contextual variables (e.g., attitudes, built environments, economic policies).

Persons with Disabilities versus Disabled Persons: Although “person-first” language was the preference for some time (e.g., people with disabilities, a person with schizophrenia, a person with spinal cord injury, a wheelchair user). More recently guidelines such as the APA Style Manual, 7th edition (2020) gives the option to use either person-first or identity-first language. With identity-first language, “the disability becomes the focus, which allows the individual to claim the disability and choose their identity rather than permitting others . . . to name it or to select terms with negative implications” (APA, 2020 p. 136). The APA Style Manual also has a section on bias-free language (pp. 131–149); one of its key points is to consider many different identities simultaneously, rather than solely on disability as a special case.

Stereotyping Language: Negative language is often used when talking about disabilities.  Burden is commonly associated with disabled persons’ effects on others, such as caregiver burden or the financial burden on parents of disabled children. The effects of disability often are described as a person suffers from or is afflicted by the disability. Individuals may be described as accomplishing something despite the disability. Words that are considered derogatory include cripple, lame, deaf and dumb, mental retardation.


Suggested Activity:

With this basic understanding of the nuances of language for disability, we suggest some follow-up activities: (a) Spend a week identifying the use of good and bad examples in media. Write them down, then compare notes with peers. (b) Conduct an online search for disability and XX, then put in terms such as ‘burden,’ an ethnicity, ‘social model,’ or “attitudes.”  What topics are current or trending? Compare with peers.