What should I call you…?

People worry about using the wrong language or accidentally insulting someone by using the wrong terminology.  Whilst it’s obviously important to treat people with respect, it’s also ok to get it wrong now and then.  So long as you are open to hearing why something might not be ok and learning what is more appropriate. 

So, with that in mind, let’s dig in to some language and look at why it might be insulting, inappropriate or ableist.

Disabled person or person with a disability: Both of these are used and which is thought of as being ‘right’ generally depends on where you are. In the UK, disabled person is the conventional way of wording it, whereas in America, person with a disability is more standard. The term disabled person is more in line with how we discuss race, gender and sexuality. If someone has expressed a preference for themselves, please use that term.

Differently abled is one of a number of euphemisms which seeks to avoid saying disabled. Disabled is not a bad word but people’s avoidance of using it makes it seem that way. Dancing around the word often feels condescending.  We are all differently abled – none of us have the same abilities as each other.

Special and handi-capable and any other term that exists to avoid saying disabled have the same problem as differently abled.

“There’s no reason to tiptoe around the reality of someone being disabled unless you consider those things to be shameful.”

Devon Price

The disabled: Think about how this would sound if you applied it to other minorities, e.g. ‘The Blacks’.  Doesn’t feel good does it? This way of talking lumps all disabled people together, and also ‘others’ us, making disabled people into separate group.

Normal: Many people have issue with the word normal but here I’m thinking about it being used in opposition to disabled people. E.g. Billy isn’t disabled, he’s normal. The implication here is then that disabled people are abnormal.

Wheelchair bound or confined to a wheelchair: Instead use wheelchair user. Wheelchair bound assumes that all wheelchair users spend all their time in their wheelchair.  In reality, a lot of people use a wheelchair mainly in specific situations, for example outside their home and even people who use their wheelchair a lot of the time, still spend time in bed, in chairs, in the bath etc. Similarly, confined to a wheelchair has connotations of pity and misfortune.

Afflicted with/suffering from/a victim of: All of these make negative assumptions about someone’s life and brings pity.  Instead, using more neutral language is preferable.  For example, instead of suffers from muscular dystrophy, you would say the person has muscular dystrophy. This takes out the assumption that the person is suffering.

Learning disability/Intellectual disability: The English convention is to use the phrase learning disabilities, however different countries use different terms. Language differs all over the world and changes over time but that is a discussion for another day. In the meantime, listen to how someone describes themselves and use their preferred terminology.

“People with disabilities get called inspiring so often, usually for the most insignificant things, that the word now feels like a euphemism for pity. Sometimes when a non disabled person uses the word to describe a person with a disability, it’s a sign that they’re feeling overwhelmed or uncomfortable.”

Haben Girma

Able-bodied person: This is a commonly used phrase to refer to someone who doesn’t have a physical disability, however it also gets used a lot to refer to someone who doesn’t have a disability at all. This erases people who are physically disabled but don’t have a visible impairment and people who have mental health issues etc. Instead, using the phrase non-disabled person is more inclusive.

Inspirational: being called inspirational for doing something mundane is more insulting than complimentary. If we have done something inspiring, by all means say it, but if all we’ve done is get up and watch Netflix all day, don’t say we’re being inspiring. It essentially translates as ‘congratulations, you woke up today and managed to face the day as a disabled person’.

Whilst we’re thinking about words, let’s learn about a couple of words and phrases you might not be familiar with:

Neurodiversity: if you break down the word, it basically means diverse brain function and encompasses all the different ways that brains work.

Neurodivergent (ND): This means having a brain that doesn’t work in the way that most brains do, i.e. it is a brain that diverges from the way the dominant brain works. People who describe themselves as neurodivergent include autistic people and dyslexic people.

Neurotypical: refers to someone who is considered to have a brain within the normal variation of the human population.

d/Deaf: capitalising the D in Deaf refers to Deaf community and culture whereas lower case deaf refers to the hearing status. In the same way you would capitalise English as that’s someone’s community and culture.

Invisible disability: An impairment that isn’t immediately visible. This may include illnesses which impact on energy levels, or pain which is managed without any aids, or mental health issues such as depression.

If there’s any words or phrases that aren’t sure about, ask us. We are happy to help you understand terminology or why certain terms are better to use than others.

1 thought on “What should I call you…?”

  1. Great post!

    I constantly have difficulty describing myself and my own disability. My language changes over time when I learn about new perspectives or think about how the way I describe myself affects my self-esteem.

    I used to describe myself with words like ‘not good at walking’ or ‘dislikes stairs’. But this was when I was very ashamed of my differences and would want to minimise any idea that I was disabled. I still have mental battles with myself over whether the language I use to describe my disability is actually appropriate. I have a long history of not noticing when I’m putting myself down! This is why I absolutely love meeting people who are positive about their disabilities, it helps me to hear how other people describe themselves.

    Language is certainly a learning curve for everybody!

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