It’s 2017, and the language we choose — in particular, the terms we use to describe people who differ from us — has never seemed more important. Every day seems to bring another news story about cultural and social divides.
Language, however, does not only create barriers — it can also build bridges. That’s why we are taking time to revisit the idea of language being person-centered, especially as we continue to work with people in the disability community.
Want to use empowering, respectful language? Here are ten ways to make your language more person-centered (besides, of course, simply using a person’s name!).
10. Take time to eliminate outdated and offensive words from your vocabulary.
Some of the terms used to describe people with disabilities are outdated, offensive, and considered slang. Need some examples? Here is a great place to start: Terms to Avoid When Writing About Disability.
9. Avoid using the language of disability to describe potentially negative traits.
When people in our culture feel that there is a slowness in understanding something, they often describe ourselves or others as “retarded.” Don’t understand what the big deal is? Read more: Eliminating the R-word.
When we feel that someone is distracted or not very focused on a task, we may describe them as being a “spaz.” In the United States, many people do not realize that this term is derived from the word “spastic” – an alternation in muscle tone that is seen forms of cerebral palsy. In other English-speaking countries, however, both words are used as derogatory terms for people with disabilities. Read more: The origin of “spaz.”
When we use disability-related language to describe negative traits, we promote the view that people with disabilities are somehow defective or abnormal, a view that contributes to the isolation, oppression, and maltreatment of people with disabilities.
8. Take time to understand why individuals may prefer person-first language (PFL) over identity-first language (IFL), or vice versa.
The theory behind person-first language (PFL)—saying “a person with a developmental disability” rather than “disabled person,” or a “person with quadriplegia” rather than “a quadriplegic” – is that it emphasizes the person, not the disability: “By placing the person first, the disability is no longer the primary, defining characteristic of an individual, but one of several aspects of the whole person.” Continue reading about PFL.
While it’s important to be familiar with PFL, keep in mind that many individuals prefer identity-first language (IFL). In identity-first language, “disabled” is a “perfectly acceptable way for a person to identify,” because PFL may unintentionally create negative attitudes:
“Consider how PFL intentionally separates a person from their disability. Although this supposedly acknowledges personhood, it also implies that “disability” and “disabled” are negative, derogatory words. In other words, disability is something society believes a person should try to dissociate from if they want to be considered a whole person. This makes it seem as though being disabled is something of which you should be ashamed. PFL essentially buys into the stigma it claims to be fighting.”
Two examples of communities that generally tend to prefer IFL are the Autistic Community and the Deaf Community. Many individuals in the Deaf Community capitalize the “D” in deaf to indicate being Deaf as a culture and identity. Read more about IFL.
7. Recognize cultural assumptions: The Religious Model
In the United States, our language is deeply affected by four major models of understanding disability: the religious, the medical, the educational, and the social.
The religious (or superstitious) model of disability gave rise to phrases like “afflicted with” or “stricken by” or “suffers from” a disability – reflecting a belief that disability somehow resulted from divine judgment or that the person was a victim or somehow morally deviant.
This way of thinking has also contributed to the devaluing, oppression, and isolation of people with disabilities. These terms also assume that a person with a disability is suffering or does not have a high quality of life. Read more about the Religious Model.
6. Recognize cultural assumptions: The Medical Model
The medical model of understanding disability promotes language that sees people with disabilities as “patients” with a “sickness” or “disease” that needs to be “cured.”
This way of talking about disability has also contributed to the isolation and oppression of people with disabilities, because disability is labelled as contagious or dangerous. Again, there is an assumption that a person with a disability is suffering or is a victim. Read more about the Medical Model.
5. Recognize cultural assumptions: The Educational Model
The educational model tends to promote language that sees people with disabilities as needing supports or assistance to become more like “the rest of us.” This view values or devalues people based on their capacity to adapt, “promotes low expectations of people with disabilities, and assumes unequal relationships.” Read more about the Educational Model.
This way of understanding disability often contributes to more isolation and the loss of rights, particularly in academic and professional settings. This view of disability also leads others to assume a patronizing role of “helpful teacher or parent” around people with disabilities.
4. Strive to understand the Social Model of understanding disability.
In contrast to the models above, the Social Model views disability as a mismatch between a person’s traits and their environment, and teaches that human culture turns natural traits into disabilities. A person’s disability can “become less severe without anything about their brain or abilities changing, if their environment accommodates their needs.” Read more about the Social Model.
This model of disability places the need for adaptation not on the individual with the disability, but on the environment and culture.
3. Re-examine the stereotypes our culture promotes about disability.
How many times have you seen a person with disability portrayed on television as inspirational? Or as dangerous to others? Or as a person without any flaws?
Laurie Block, in her article Stereotypes About People with Disabilities, describes six common stereotypes to be aware of. She describes one such stereotype as the idea that a person with a disability is a “superhuman,” triumphing over adversity in a way that serves as an example to others. Another stereotype is that people with disabilities are “holy innocents with special grace, with the function of inspiring others to value life.”
2. Choose to care about the preferences of other people, rather than just caring that you are “correct.”
In the end, our attitudes are more important than our choice of language:
“While terminology is important in shaping viewpoints, attitudes are even more important. Most people with disabilities are less offended by occasional outdated terminology than by obvious paternalistic or patronizing attitudes … Sincere respect and equality are easily recognized.” (Read more from Disability Info)
Language that is respectful IS possible – but only if we are willing to slow down, examine our terminology, learn to be better listeners, and transform our own attitudes. Not sure where to start? If possible, ask the people with disabilities who are already present in your life, and then start listening. A commitment to listening demonstrates willingness to put another person’s preferences, desires, and priorities first.
1. Remember that language is more powerful than we can imagine.
During the worst eras of disability history, people who did not have disabilities chose terminology – usually words referring to inanimate objects—to describe people with disabilities, in order to dehumanize or separate them from the rest of society.
During the 21st century in the United States, people with disabilities were labelled as “undesirables,” “morons,” “degenerate,” “defective,” “lunatics,” “idiots,” “unfit,” and “feeble-minded.” These dehumanizing and objectifying terms were used to justify mass sterilization, institutionalization, oppression, and murder. During the eugenics era, the United States was a principal actor in promoting the “perfection of the race” through these forms of oppression.
These eras of history should compel us to pay closer attention to our language and our attitudes. If we do not know why we have so many conversations about language and terminology, and if we do not educate ourselves on disability history, we will not understand the power of language, and we will be at risk of repeating many terrible mistakes as a culture. What we teach our children and how we expect others to speak about disability can deeply affect every aspect of life, from access to a life in community to access to a voting booth or civil rights.
Lastly, don’t forget: One of the most empowering, person-centered uses of language is to simply use a person’s name.
For further reading:
Learn more about identity-first language and person-first language:
Learn about using more respectful, empowering language:
Learn more about the different models of understanding disability:
- Disability-Friendly Terminology
- “A disability is a mismatch between a person’s abilities and their environment”
- Models of Disability: Michigan Disability Rights Coalition
- Disabled World: Definitions of the Models of Disability
Challenge your own assumptions + visit important moments in disability history: