Mar 13, 2012

What are we called, exactly?

Tammy from Manchester, England asks:

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.


  1. Disabled person from the UK here, declaring love for the term "disabled person". Here's why:

    When I roll up to a shop and there's a big step, no call button to get a staff member to bring a ramp, and no directions to an alternative entrance, I've been dis-abled by their thoughtlessness. If they were complying with access law, I would be cruising on in without a second thought.

    When I order a small cup of tea and ask for it to be put in a medium-size cup so I won't spill it, and the request is refused, the server's inflexibility has disabled me.

    It's barriers, physical and societal, disabling me. I don't carry my disability around with me to put in my own way all the time... and if I'm not facing a barrier, then I'm not disabled. But when I'm disabled by a barrier, then it's relevant to refer to me as a disabled person.

    Relevancy is also important, though. Like if we're talking about wheelchair access, call me a "wheelchair user" because that is much more relevant than "disabled person" and will enable us to focus on the particular issue at hand. It's also not negative.

    And finally, it's how you say it. No matter how "correct" the term, if it has "effing" in front of it or is being delivered in a mocking tone then it's a problem.

    1. That's the UK way of thinking, I guess. It's not for me to judge whether that is good or bad (not that it should be seen that way). It is what it is.

      North America can sometimes be a bit overly political correct and I find that some people seem to hate using adjectives like "disabled" to describe a person. It may be correct that the conditions of society makes someone "disabled."

      We North Americans tend to argue about the position of the word, whether it should be an adjective at the front or placed at the end to emphasize "person." I think the theory for the latter is that if others see us as "persons" first and "disabled" second, they are more likely to treat us as people – and thus reducing the chances of committing an act that "disables" us.

      I am always fascinated by the difference in theory in the UK and North America with this. Neither is wrong. Just different.

    2. Absolutely, it's different approaches to language in general and this is an exploration of the different cultural approaches rather than me seeking to persuade. If you like, next we can tackle the U in "colour". ;-) I should also re-iterate that this is an abstract exploration of preferred terms, rather than a "this is the only right way and all other ways are wrong and offensive." As long as people are being respectful, almost any term is okay (and if it really isn't, like for instance rXXXrd, then as long as people are being respectful, I'll feel comfortable saying "I'd rather you didn't use that word.")

      Part of it is that linguistically I view "disability" as an experience dependent on the environment, or the expectations of society, rather than a permanent issue in its own right (the impairments or health conditions that contribute to the experience may be permanent, the experience of being disabled isn't).

      My condition simply IS. My level of disability fluctuates, sometimes I feel very disabled and other times I don't feel disabled at all. Sometimes I am disabled purely by people's desire to classify me as "other".

      Example: If my small tea is in a small cup filled to the brim, I'll have trouble lifting it without spilling it - I am disabled by that situation. If my small tea is in a medium cup, then I can lift it without spilling and I don't feel disabled in the slightest.

      So using person-first language, I am a "person with a wheelchair" because yes, the wheelchair is something I've brought along with me. If I am affected internally by a symptom of my condition like a headache then I am a "person with a headache". But if I am sitting in that wheelchair in front of a great big flight of steps which has no alternate accessible route, I didn't bring disability along with me. I brought my own ability, and my own wheels, and my own reasonable expectation that by now shops and services should be up to speed with access legislation. I'm being confronted with external disabling factors. I think the person-first phrase for that would have to be "person who is (being) disabled," (grammatically: disabled person) rather than "person with a disability."

    3. Whether a certain term is "respectful" is also so culturally dependent as well. My family communicates mostly in Chinese, and the term for someone like me is "lame." In English, that may sound appalling but in Chinese, it does not always carry the same connotation. It's like the term "gwailo" in Cantonese. There are so many factors involved.

      Disability is indeed an experience, which is why I found your explanation a bit fascinating as well. You do have a point there. I think people are trying to do away with that word as an adjective as a way to try to "un-disable" ourselves; the idea is if we don't think of people being "disabled," then the disabling factors will erode over time. I won't say whether I buy that idea or not; it's just the way things are trending towards over here.

      I tend to favor the term "wheelchair user," but the variations for that are so wide as well. I've even heard the term "wheelchairist" (much like "cyclist"). :)