The language which surrounds disability is tremendously complex. There is, for example, the brisk debate between the person first approach and the different framing which comes up in the social model of disability and the appropriate language to use within each structure[1. Person first=person with disabilities, social model=disabled person.]. But many nondisabled people aren’t even at the state of plunging into the complexities of this debate within the disability rights movement and may be unfamiliar with the very idea of models of disability; they are still stuck on how to talk about disability respectfully in the first place.
And often, this expresses in the form of euphemisms and awkward circumlocutions. I understand the intent behind this. The idea is that one does not want to be offensive, and one is not really sure about which language to use, so language will be couched carefully with the hope of not offending and of treating people with respect. It’s a bit disappointing that people do this instead of directly asking people with disabilities how they would like to be referred to or doing some reading on the subject, but it comes from the right place: A desire to avoid problematic language.
And I want to note, before I plunge into some disability euphemisms that I really dislike and why I dislike them: I am talking about the language that people use to refer to other people. The words that people use to self identify are their own business and I will never deny someone the right to self identify; I will use a euphemism which I have distaste for if someone has asked to be described with it because it’s about respecting self identification, not about centreing my distaste for a word or phrase. I will not challenge someone who is using a self identification about whether or not it is ok, because that is simply not appropriate.
This is a post for people who are unclear about what kind of language might be appropriate when talking about disability, for people who are trying to be circumspect about the language that they use. I am one person; I can talk about terms I don’t like and why I don’t like them, and you can decide if you’d like to use them anyway, or seek out something better, but remember that I do not speak for the disability rights movement, please, just for myself. Above all, though, please keep in mind that self identification trumps all and if you really want to know how someone would prefer to be referred to, ask. I can tell you that I always prefer to be asked than to have assumptions made and I am always receptive to people who ask about how I self identify and how I would like them to describe me, and the same holds true for many other people living in marginalised bodies.
Here are some disability euphemisms which I personally find really irritating: ‘physically challenged’ or ‘differently abled’ for people with physical disabilities. ‘Mentally challenged’ or ‘mentally disabled’ or ‘person with mental disabilities’ for people with intellectual disabilities. ‘Non-hearing’ for Deaf people. These are just a handful, but I think you get the general gist of things.
The thing is, I see all of these terms used every day with good faith by people who are just trying to say the right thing, to find language to use to describe something which is not othering and offensive. What they don’t realise is that some people actually find the language they are using very othering. I am at a stage in my activism right now where I am not really very interested in correcting individuals or singling out individuals for attention, which is why I am writing this post; it is a general discussion of a structural issue, not anything targeted at anyone in particular.
Because, here’s the other thing: People also use these very same euphemisms in a way which is designed to be derisive and offensive. And when I encounter these euphemisms, I find it extremely jarring. I hear these words used more like epithets, flung at people as insults and not used to describe human being with respectful language. So when I encounter a sentence like ‘…mentally disabled people were also excluded from the event,’ I have to take a minute to figure out what’s going on. Is the author saying ‘people with disabilities were excluded as well and this was an awful thing,’ or is the author making a dig at people with disabilities by using this euphemism.
I personally prefer to say ‘person with disabilities’ or ‘disabled person’ because I integrate aspects of both the person first and social model into my approach to disability, unless I am specifically asked to use different terms by someone who is self-identifying as something different. When I talk about people who do not have disabilities, I say ‘nondisabled[1. I don’t like ‘temporarily able bodied’ for a number of reasons, the primary one being that ‘able bodied’ takes focus away from the mind and has a tendency to erase mental illnesses and intellectual disabilities, and that’s also why I shy away from ‘able’ although I used to use that terminology; my own language is evolving too!].’
This most certainly does not mean that you are required to use these terms, but it is something I ask nondisabled folks to think about; when you think about the language you use to describe disability, think about where it comes from and the motivations behind it. Think about what you are trying to express with the words and phrases you use, and think, too, about the way in which language can become twisted and manipulated. ‘Handicapped,’ after all, used to be a perfectly acceptable and sometimes even preferred term, but today it feels jarring because of the way it has been turned into an insult; likewise for ‘handicapable,’ which might originally have meant something else, but today feels like a cutesy dismissal of disability and issues like accessibility.