If I see someone in a wheelchair/cane/etc., should I call him/her?
The person's name always helps. But with that aside, that is a good question.
There have been many words used in the past to describe people with disabilities. Just like many other civil rights movements, the words have evolved over time according to the sensitivities and perceived appropriateness of each generation.
In the past, there have been words used such as "cripple," "lame," "spazz" and so on. These words, over time, have gone from being commonplace to offensive. Some argue that the word "handicap" should be discontinued as well (which I will talk about later).
It seems that here in North America, there is a trend towards person-first language. For those who do not know, person-first language basically puts the person first and impairment second. For example, instead of saying "disabled person," the preferred term is now "person with a disability." (Obviously those who came up with this never had to deal with the length limitations of Twitter!)
The reason for this is that there is a movement to get the general population to change their ways of thinking about disability. Throughout history, there has been the idea that disability is something bad that limits a person's ability to live a full life. After the technological and medical advances of the past several centuries, this is no longer true; many people with disabilities are able to live a full and fulfilling life.
However, despite the advances, social perception of disability has not changed accordingly. It is possible for a person in a wheelchair to be viewed as helpless or limited simply due to his disability – even if the person is actually a Paralympian who has won a gold medal. There are many assumptions that people have, and it is all centered on the idea of what someone "cannot" do.
Hence, if you use the word "disabled" as an adjective, you are effectively describing the person by putting his/her disability first and foremost as if it is the most important thing about him/her. People with disabilities often want to be known for who they are as people, not simply as "the wheelchair guy/girl."
But there is a catch. This is not a universal rule. In the United Kingdom, the term "disabled person" is still widely used. I am not British so I do not know if there are many negative connotations that come from that like in North America. My Twitter has many followers from that part of the world; I would love to pick their brains about this topic one day.
The word "handicap"/"handicapped" could also be the next term to be phased out. Some see the word "handicap" as being an equivalent for "disadvantage." There is also an unconfirmed rumor that since the word's origins come from the term "hand in cap," it also has a connotation that people with disabilities are historically known for being beggars on the streets. (Again, this is not something I have been able to confirm.) Either way, I would not be surprised if this word is abandoned soon; that is why instead of "handicap parking," I err to the side of caution and say "accessible parking" instead.
The words "gimp" and "cripple" (generally considered offensive words) are undergoing an interesting change as well. Like the N-word, they are currently being reclaimed by those with disabilities. Sometimes it is a sign of pride. I have also seen it as a sign of defiance in response to assumptions about disability. Examples of how those words are reclaimed can be found at GimpHacks (a blog belonging to someone I know), My Gimpy Life (an upcoming series starring the wonderful Teal Sherer) and CripCollege (a blog teaching tips and tricks for wheelchair users that existed until 2010).
Of course, this is only English. In some other languages, the negative connotations of disability are embedded into the word itself, such as:
- German's "Behinderung" (which can also mean "incapacity")
- Spanish's "discapacidad" (which can also mean "without power")
- French's "invalidité" (which can also mean "invalidity" or "nullity")
- Chinese's "殘疾" (which can also mean "deformity")
- Korean's "장애" (which can also mean "failure")
(This list may not be 100% accurate since I am going by my own knowledge of these languages; obviously I am better at some languages than others. Please feel free to offer corrections.)
Some can argue that the English word "disability" itself would belong on this list too, due to "dis" meaning "not." This issue can get quite complex.
The safest term right now is likely "person with a disability" but do not be surprised if that, too, gets ousted over time in favor of another term.