Words can hurt, especially when we use them incorrectly. When we use words and phrases to speak about those with disabilities, we often neglect to see how those terms damage the dignity of the person. Kelly Tong, family support specialist/volunteer coordinator at Kaitlyn’s Cottage, a short-term respite facility specializing in caring for children and young adults with special needs, helps us understand how to speak in a way that includes, not excludes, people with disabilities.
- Retarded, Mentally Challenged or Mental Deficiency
People often use blanket terms when referring to those with developmental, intellectual and physical disabilities. Usually people equate the term “mental” with a psychological diagnosis, and it isn’t any more appropriate to assume a person with an intellectual disability has a psychological disorder as it is to assume anyone does. And certainly, someone with a physical disability may not also have an intellectual disability. Using developmental, intellectual and physical disability is the proper term.
- Handicapped and Crippled
Use “physical disability” when referring to a person, never “handicapped” or “crippled.” If you’re speaking about parking, restrooms, doors or other items that are often specially tailored to those with physical disabilities, use the term “accessible,” such as “accessible parking.” Handicapped as a term is no longer used in federal language and legislation, as with the term “retarded.”
Avoid saying “disabled” when speaking of someone with a disability, in addition to “defect” (as in birth defect) or “damaged” (as in brain damaged). People with disabilities see these as derogatory terms. Who would want to be thought of as “useless” or “broken” like a disabled vehicle? People with disabilities aren’t “not working” or “broken down.” “Brain injury” and “congenital disability” is much more positive than “brain damage” or “birth defect.” Someone with Spina Bifida who faces having his or her condition called a “birth defect,” rather than a congenital disability, probably wouldn’t want the same term used to describe a defective microwave.
- “Normal” or “Healthy”
By now we know there is no such thing as “normal.” Each person is unique, and faces their own set of unique qualities and drawbacks. When speaking about a child without a disability, simply call them just that. You may also use the term “Typical Peer.”
- “Suffering” and “Overcome”
Some people don’t like hearing they have “overcome” or are “suffering from” their physical disability. Simply put, they are just someone who is/does ___ who has a physical disability. Their disability is a characteristic, if you will, like the color of their hair or the size of their feet.
- The Person Comes First
One mistake people make is by using a person’s disability as their defining trait. They use “disabled girl” much in the same way some say “blonde girl.”The person should always come first, such as “person who uses a wheelchair.” The idea behind this is that the term does not define the person. This gives dignity to that person. Just as we should always see people for who they are, so too should characteristics be secondary to who they truly are.