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Words Matter! Disability Language Etiquette

An introduction to disability language etiquette for allies.

Why Is Disability Language Etiquette Important?

Language matters. Word choices can either create inclusive or exclusionary environments, create or disrupt barriers to inclusion, uplift or demean differences, or sustain or disperse stereotypes about persons with disabilities. This is especially important in education, where all students need to be safe and respected in order to flourish academically and socially.

Federal laws protect the civil rights of people with disabilities; however, many non-disabled people are uncomfortable using the preferred terms “disabled” or “disability.” These terms describe a part of a person’s identity. Euphemisms like “differently abled,” “challenged,” and “handi-capable” are often considered condescending. By shying away from mentioning “disability,” we are reinforcing the notion that being “disabled” or a “person with disability” is shameful. The word “special” is a particularly entrenched euphemism that may also be utilized technically (e.g., “special education”). Disability advocates dislike the use of “special needs” because of its paternalistic nature and instead encourage the use of the words “disabled” and “disability.”

It can be difficult to recognize language that is ableist and offensive. There are numerous expressions and words that are a part of everyday language, and we don’t think twice about using them, which actually reinforces negative stereotypes, dehumanizes, and stigmatizes individuals with disabilities (e.g., “turn a blind eye,” “crazy,” “tone deaf”). It is allies' responsibility to learn and practice anti-ableist language—the ways we speak to or about people with disabilities. The burden is on allies to relearn language practices rather than on people with disabilities to accept ableist language use.

A useful tool that helps reframe language to make it more inclusive and less offensive is disability language etiquette, which should be part of the professional training of all educators in learning communities around the country. Disability language etiquette refers to the appropriate language and terminology used to describe individuals with disabilities (students, educators, and other community members) in ways that promote respect, acceptance, and inclusivity.

Key Principles of Disability Language Etiquette

Use person-first language. Advocates of person-first language believe that a person with disabilities is an individual first and shouldn’t be identified by their disability. Examples include “people with disabilities” instead of “disabled people;” “a person who uses a wheelchair,” not a “wheelchair-bound person;” and “people who are hard of hearing,” not “deaf people.” Many people with disabilities prefer identity-first language (e.g., “disabled person,” “Autistic”), which is a reclamation of disability identity and indicates disability pride. It is not always possible to know what an individual prefers, so it is preferable to begin with person-first language and then adjust according to the individual’s preferences. In education contexts, it is important to not rely on a special education eligibility category to shape the language that we use to describe students and/or their teachers (e.g., “moderate-severe kids/teacher/classroom”). We can talk about students who are “labeled with learning differences” but should relearn using special education labels to reference students’ needed supports and services, not the student.

Avoid outdated and offensive terms. Be conscious of antiquated words that have negative connotations for people with disabilities (e.g., “handicapped” or “crippled”). The language surrounding disabilities has changed significantly over the years. There is an inclusive and respectful way to describe all kinds of disabilities, and there are many comprehensive lists that can guide those choices. (For examples, check out the Northwest ADA Center’s Respectful Interactions: Disability Language and Etiquette and the Stanford Disability Initiative Board’s Disability Language Guide.)

Avoid ableist language. Ableist language refers to using disability language as an insult (e.g., “lame”), using language that treats disability as something to be pitied, and using language that refers to disabled people as inspirational for overcoming difficulties. All cases can be dehumanizing. Do not characterize someone with a disability as “suffering” or “afflicted” because it diminishes a person’s agency, implies that they require pity, and reduces them to something that happened to them.

Do not describe people without disabilities as “normal” as this implies that people with disabilities are not normal. If you must make a comparison, speak of “people with disabilities” versus those without.

Quick Guidelines for Language Choice

The most important aspect of disability etiquette is to address people with disabilities as you would any other person. Along with the choice of words discussed above, here are some things to keep in mind when interacting with people with disabilities.

  • People with disabilities do not need to offer any explanation of their impairment. It is up to them what or whether to share. Even if it is a close friend, they have no obligation to answer any questions.
  • Do not presume that people with disabilities need help. For example, a person using a wheelchair may not need help with opening a door, carrying a bag, or crossing the street. Always ask before helping someone and clarify how you can best assist them.
  • Always treat people with disabilities as independent individuals with their own agency. For example, if a person has a sign language interpreter, speak directly to the individual, not the interpreter. Also, don’t make assumptions about what a person with a disability can or cannot do.
  • Be mindful of personal space and physical contact. When addressing someone using a wheelchair or other mobility device, offer to shake hands as you would with anyone else and make eye contact at the person’s level. Refrain, however, from unexpected touching when someone is using a cane or other assistive device required to support balance.
  • When interacting with people who have visual impairments, identify yourself and where you are (e.g., “I’m Emily and am sitting across from you”) and let others in a group do the same. Do not presume that the person needs help; you can ask if they need any guidance or support (e.g., “would you like to hold my arm while we walk?”). Remember: This is someone who knows how to best navigate the world.

  • When talking to someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, use the same tone you would with others, speaking clearly and distinctly to support lip reading. Follow the person’s cues on whether they want to speak or use sign language and an interpreter.
  • For people with speech disabilities, give your full attention and be patient without being condescending. Do not interrupt or finish the person’s sentences. If you are not sure that you understood, repeat for verification. It’s okay to respectfully ask to use writing or another form of communication if you are having difficulty understanding someone’s speech pattern.
  • When interacting with a person with a developmental or intellectual disability, do not assume they don’t understand age-appropriate concepts or words. Don’t speak down, over-simplify, or use a baby-like voice.
  • If a person uses a service animal, do not distract, feed, or pet the animal.
  • Finally, you don’t need to apologize if you say something that you then find awkward. “See you later” or “I’ve got to run” are common expressions in English and people with sensory and physical impairments use them. An apology might make the situation more uncomfortable.

Following simple courtesy and showing respect for individuals can go a long way to creating an anti-ableist, inclusive, and respectful environment for people with disabilities. These are the kinds of environments we must strive to provide for students in all learning communities. As educators, we must embrace these changes to empower all students, educators, and others with disabilities.

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