The Dos and Don’ts of disability language

The Dos and Don’ts of disability language

The maze of disability language is fraught with peril. There are clear frustrations, even among the allies, over which words and phrases to use as the disability language has been evolving, and rapidly, over the past few decades to better represent the community. The terms once considered sensitive have not only been discarded, but are now considered derogatory. And, there seems to be little consensus over which words strike the balance between accuracy, clarity, and positivity.

Mental retardation has been discarded, thankfully.

The term ‘intellectual and developmental disability’ (IDD) has been adopted legally in many countries to factually represent the set of conditions associated with delayed milestones.

‘Cognitive diversity’, and ‘neurodiversity’ are gaining acceptance among persons with disabilities, their families, friends, peers, allies and acquaintances as generic terms that accurately represent the full range of intellectual functioning experienced by persons with different IDDs.

There are as many voices as people, and three cheers to that! But, it also leaves persons with disabilities, their families, friends, allies, acquaintances and the academia in a lot of confusion.

What are the right words or phrases to use?

Why do we need a disability language? Why do we need disability etiquette? Is all this really needed or is this too some hyped-up, new-age fad that too shall pass?

Language is the key to gaining power over how a people are spoken about, and the narrative around them. It is the key to understanding and claiming our identity, projecting it and protecting it. Using the correct language allows us to retain control over ourselves. Language is the first step to real agency.

The correct choice of words is also the first step to establishing an etiquette, a set of manners and boundaries for a way of being. Etiquettes are not about special treatment or status. They are about respect, a behaviour that creates space for humane, mutually beneficial engagement, and the way forward for human rights.

In all, creating and using the correct disability language is important not only for the community, but humanity at large.

How do we simplify matters for everyone? Thankfully, there are some simple steps we can follow.

  1. Start by weeding out the obviously insulting terms.

“Pagal”, the R-word, feeble-minded, stupid, imbecile, cripple, crazy, insane, loony, mentally disabled, etc. Remove these from your vocabulary. To counter the rhetoric of “they are factual, medical terms”, present the context of their online use to spread hatred and bullying.

  1. Use terms that are simple, factual, explain or identify the condition accurately.

If you’re thinking well-intentioned terms like “challenged”, “differently abled”, “special”, please stop.

The biggest bone of contention while choosing the right words and phrases is the ableism-driven discourse making it a pity-party, a glorification, a condescending dismissal or whitewashing the entire experience of living with a disability as one not worth having.

For instance, the once can’t-go-wrong-with-this term ‘special’ has been deemed undesirable after it took on a life of its own in the ableism-driven world. It added a layer of needless pressure to overcome very real limitations to even become acknowledgeable as a human being. The tag led to segregation in schools, society and workplaces instead of opening doors to assimilation.

‘Specially-abled’ or ‘differently abled’ created a burden to display a distinct, unusual capacity that others don’t have, such as “heightened sense of X when Y is absent”, even when the disability is just that — the absence of an ability that the majority of the population has. Not a diminishing factor, but something to be worked around and accepted.

Always remember: Persons with disabilities do not like being pitied or thought less of because they do not view themselves so. They’re just different, not broken.

Name specific types of disability, like Fragile-X syndrome or Down Syndrome. Many prefer it as a way of wearing their identity on the sleeve.

  1. Use people-first language.

Choose people-first language over identity-first language — “person with intellectual disability” instead of “intellectually disabled person”. People-first language identifies the person as a whole with disability being a part of them versus their disability overtaking their entire identity.

People-first language is also more accurate, and respectful when discussing disabilities as a subject in a class, group conversation or in writing.

That said, there is a section within the disability community that prefers identity-first language. They place their disability at the centre of their identity in a non-pitiable way. So, always ask!

The best way is to talk to any person with a disability — physical or intellectual — is to ask for their name, check their preference and use that term.

All these rules aside, it’s OK to make mistakes when learning something new. Don’t be too hard on yourself or those around you if they happen to use politically incorrect terms. Correct gently. Request. Explain what’s hurtful and inaccurate, and why. We are all unlearning and learning.


What is person-first language?

“Think of something that you don’t like about yourself that the society has also deemed less desirable. Now take that word and put it in front of your name and imagine being called that word plus your name all your life”. — Patti McVay, renowned educator and inclusion specialist.

This is the premise for use of people- or person-first language.

For example:

Intellectually disabled people

People with intellectual disability

People who have intellectual disability

People who happen to have intellectual disability

Person’s name

One could ask what’s wrong with using “Intellectually disabled people”, “Fragile-X people” or “Down’s people/kids” since they’re all grammatically correct. Terms that put disability before the person literally put disability before the person, even if subconsciously.

For many years now, the disability community has been advocating use of terms that widen the lens with which persons are viewed to ensure that their personality, individuality, full range of emotions are acknowledged instead of the disability becoming the one feature that dominates their entire existence.

A non-disabled person may be left confused by such a choice. Understand it like this: Is the sum total of a visionless person’s life just their disability? Can they not be secretaries and bureaucrats and teachers who also happen to be blind?

If tomorrow an able-bodied person was to lose a limb would they want to be identified as a disabled person or would they want to continue to be first identified for who they are and what they bring to the table?

Such a way of identifying disabilities also allows for complete exploration of a person’s talents versus the subconscious dismissal in view of an assumed inability.

The thumb rule with people-first language is to not insult the person, the condition, wish it away, hide it (differently-abled) or glorify it (special). It is to simply acknowledge that they exist alongside their disability.