Changing Words to Change the World: Grappling with the Word “Disabled”
Though we often underestimate their impact, the words we use are a powerful reflection of our society’s beliefs. Think about words that were once widely accepted, but are now considered offensive.
One that might come to mind is the word retarded or retard. This was once considered appropriate terminology to describe people with mental disabilities. Even though these are words used in offensive name-calling, they are strongly discouraged.
As a society we are more aware, and can therefore appreciate the effects our words can have on people and society as a whole.
Even though it is still used often, disabled is another word you hear less often. The Government of Canada released a document called “A Way with Words and Images.” They describe a disability as “a functional limitation or restriction of an individual’s ability to perform an activity” (2). Instead of saying “the disabled” they recommend the term, “people with disabilities.”
Someone with a disability might have difficulty performing an activity, not all activities. A person who uses a wheelchair might still drive a car or play sports. So if you call someone disabled, you’re essentially slapping a label on them.
The language we use shapes our attitudes towards people with disabilities, which in turn causes them to be marginalized in society. It’s important to remember that “the majority of persons with disabilities have similar aspirations to the rest of the population and words and images should reflect their inclusion in society (1).”
In addition to “person with a disability” being the acceptable terminology, the Government lists further recommended terminology for specific disabilities. Here are some examples (9-11):
- Never say someone “suffers from”, is “stricken with,” or is “a victim of” a condition. Instead use, “person with” and state the disability. For instance, say person with cerebral palsy, or person with epilepsy, or person with schizophrenia.
- Instead of “wheel-chair bound” or “confined to a wheelchair,” say “person who uses a wheelchair” or “wheelchair user.”
- Someone with a mental health condition is not to be called “insane, psycho, lunatic, mental patient, etc” should be called “person with a mental health disability”
Also take note that although the word handicapped is still used, it really should not be. In fact the word dates back to the days when people with disabilities were abandoned and forced to beg in the streets “cap in hand” (The Right Words, 3).
A short answer to the question of why the word disabled is being used less often is simply that it cannot only be offensive to some, but outdated as well. As a society, we are taught not to define people by their conditions- this principle is not always upheld.
How can we call historical figures like Terry Fox, Stevie Wonder, Helen Keller, Stephen Hawking (and the list goes on) disabled? As our use of language continues to evolve, so do our attitudes and beliefs.
Our use of words matter and we still have a long way to go and much more to accomplish- let’s do it together.
A way with Words and Images (2002) Retrieved from: http://www.terrace.ca/documents/news/measuring-up-the-north/MUT-Way-with-Words.pdf
The Right Words. (2010, January 27) Retrieved from: http://www.terrace.ca/documents/news/measuring-up-the-north/MUT-The-Right-Words.pdf.