Speaking of Disabilities

By Peter Connor

Keeping people in the picture, and using the correct terminology associated with specific disabilities, are two main things to keep in mind when speaking about and/or to people with disabilities.

Here are a few guidelines:

  • To put the subject in its proper perspective, understand the difference between the words disability and impairment. One is at the root of the other.
    • When a person is restricted in his or her ability to perform an action within the usual parameters of an ably functioning human being, he or she has a disability with regard to that action.
    • Disabilities have corresponding impairments: loss, diminishment, or dysfunction of psychological, physiological or anatomical structures or functions.
  • When referring to people collectively, avoid using generic stereotypes, i.e., the mentally retarded, the handicapped, paraplegics. An easy fix is to replace both definite and indefinite articles with person, people, students, etc., and fill in the logical blanks—people who are mentally retarded, students with handicaps, accident victims suffering from paraplegia. It keeps the human being in the picture.
  • Avoid impersonal references when speaking about individuals as well. Notice how a paraplegic dehumanizes the person in its rush to identify the disability, whereas a person with paraplegia puts the person front and center; the disability in its proper perspective, one characteristic, among many others, that contribute to the makeup of an individual.  
  • On that same note, when not germane, you can forgo all mention of disability. For instance, a brilliant scientist working on the Human Genome Project being blind is not germane to a discussion of said scientists' current research. 
  • Naturally, disparaging labels—cripple, retard, etc.—need to be avoided. A person whose mobility is impaired, or who has Downs Syndrome reflects the specific details without engaging in discriminatory language.
  • Positive portrayals are always preferable. Refrain from saying that a person is wheelchair bound, for instance; he or she might require a wheelchair to get around and not consider it any more than a means to an end—a necessary adaptation for mobility's sake—and not something to which they are bound; from which they cannot get in and out.  
  • Avoid imprecise language like differently-abled and visually challenged. As euphemisms they are awkward, ineffective and miss the mark. 


Peter Connor - TILT Web Content Writer and Editor