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How To Talk About Disability (And How Not To)

By on 10.26.12 | 10:36AM

People first. That's the simplest way I can describe how best to talk about disability and people with disabilities. Speak of the person first, then, if it's relevant, of his or her disability. It's the difference between explaining what a person has and who a person is.

Ann Coulter's tweet during the final presidential debate referring to President Obama as a "retard" has provoked a lot of outrage, which is exactly why she used the word. She's not alone, of course. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel once called liberal activists "retarded."

The disability-rights community has developed preferred terminology, what it calls "people-first language."

Many people get it wrong, and, unlike Coulter and Emanuel, most don't do so out of malice. Many people refer to a "special needs child" or "Down syndrome baby" when they actually mean a "child with special needs" or "baby who has Down syndrome." Change the syntax and you change the emphasis and the meaning -- people first.

It's important to avoid negative words that imply tragedy, such as saying that someone "suffers from" or is the "victim" of this or that "illness."

It can be hard to keep up with the evolution of language on disability, with what's appropriate and what's not. And many people are probably afraid to say anything at all for fear of offending someone.

I can sympathize with that. I know people who would never use the word "disability," preferring instead to use the word "difference."

But it's important to make an effort. What it comes down to is respecting people and not defining them strictly by their genetic makeup or what they cannot do. To define people by their disabilities is to dehumanize them, which makes it easier to discriminate against them.

Let's encounter them as "people first," because people with disabilities are people who, like all of us, have unique abilities, interests and personalities.

In a related point, there is often a temptation to talk about people with disabilities (especially children) as if they are somehow "closer to God" or an even greater blessing than others. Also, I have often heard people defer to positive stereotypes when talking about people with disabilities -- for instance, to say that people with Down syndrome are always so happy and cheerful. This also is dangerous.

People with disabilities are no different than anyone else. In other words, they have abilities and disabilities. But ultimately they are children of God, equal in dignity to all others. They are people first.

Here are some examples of people first language from the Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities:

Say This

Not This

people with disabilities

the handicapped, the disabled

people without disabilities

normal, healthy, whole or typical people

person who has a congenital disability

person with a birth defect

person who has (or has been diagnosed with)...

person afflicted with, suffers from, a victim of...

person who has Down syndrome

Downs person, mongoloid, mongol

person who has (or has been diagnosed with) autism

the autistic

person with quadriplegia, person with paraplegia, person diagnosed with a physical disability

a quadriplegic, a paraplegic

person with a physical disability

a cripple

person of short stature, little person

a dwarf, a midget

person who is unable to speak, person who uses a communication device

dumb, mute

people who are blind, person who is visually
impaired

the blind

person with a learning disability

learning disabled

person diagnosed with a mental health condition

crazy, insane, psycho, mentally ill, emotionally disturbed, demented

person diagnosed with a cognitive disability or with an intellectual and developmental disability

mentally retarded, retarded, slow, idiot, moron

student who receives special education services

special ed student, special education student

person who uses a wheelchair or a mobility chair

confined to a wheelchair; wheelchair bound

accessible parking, bathrooms, etc.

handicapped parking, bathrooms, etc.

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