If you don’t have a disability yourself or are not part of a disability community, it can be hard to find the right terminology to write or translate texts about disability.
Using outdated language can perpetuate old stereotypes of people with disabilities. That’s why it’s important for us to be aware of how language can be used to portray people with disabilities in a sensitive and appropriate way.
Here are some aspects to consider when writing and translating texts for or about people with disabilities.
People with disabilities are not a homogenous group. They are individuals – people with their own unique abilities, wishes and needs. This is why many guides on writing or talking about disability advocate for ‘people-first’ language, which emphasises the person, not the disability. For instance, this means writing ‘a person with a disability’ rather than ‘a disabled person’.
Putting the person first makes the disability just one aspect of the person, rather than the defining characteristic. Here are some examples of people-first language, along with a few other related terms.
|accessible parking||handicap parking|
|has (e.g. she has muscular dystrophy)||suffers from, is a victim of|
|people without disabilities, typical person, non-disabled person||normal/healthy/able-bodied person|
|person in a vegetative state||a vegetable|
|person who has epilepsy||an epileptic|
|person who has mental illness||the mentally ill, crazy, psycho, mental case|
|person who stutters||stutterer, person who stammers|
|person who uses a wheelchair/wheelchair user||person who is wheelchair-bound/confined to a wheelchair|
|person with a disability/physical disability||cripple, invalid, lame, abnormal person, deformed|
|person with a drug addiction||addict|
|person with alcoholism||alcoholic|
|person with a learning disability/learning disabilities/an intellectual disability||mentally retarded/mentally handicapped person, mentally disabled, intellectually disabled|
|person with a mental health condition||mental patient/person, insane, mad|
|person with cerebral palsy||spastic|
|person with dementia||demented, senile|
|person with Down syndrome||Mongoloid|
|person with dwarfism, little person||midget|
|person with paraplegia||paraplegic|
|person with schizophrenia||schizophrenic|
|psychiatric hospital, mental health hospital||asylum|
|sustained/received an injury||suffered an injury|
Some communities prefer to use identity-first rather than people-first language. This is particularly true of self-advocates in the autism and Deaf communities. Many autistic people prefer to be referred to as autistic/an autistic person, rather than a person with autism, because they understand autism as an inherent part of their identity. This issue is discussed in more detail in this article by the Autistic Self Advocacy Network on identity-first language.
Many people who use sign language as their first language identify as part of the Deaf community and may describe themselves as Deaf (with a capital D).
It’s important to be aware of these preferences, especially to avoid ‘correcting’ people who use identity-first language to refer to themselves or their community. If in doubt, it’s always best to ask people what type of language they prefer, or have your text reviewed by a community member.
|Deaf/deaf||deaf and dumb, deaf-mute, mute|
|hard of hearing||hearing impaired|
|hearing people||normal people|
There are some excellent online resources on disability language, including the Disability Language Style Guide by the National Centre on Disability and Journalism in the US. Have a look at the list below if you would like more information.
References and further information
National Centre on Disability and Journalism – Disability Language Style Guide http://ncdj.org/style-guide/
Inclusive communication https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/inclusive-communication
Inclusive language: words to use and avoid when writing about disability https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/inclusive-communication/inclusive-language-words-to-use-and-avoid-when-writing-about-disability
Portraying disability https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/inclusive-communication/portraying-disability
How to write about disability http://www.wikihow.com/Write-About-Disability
Ableist language http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/11/ableist-language-matters/
‘Crazy’ and ableist language http://whatprivilege.com/replacing-crazy-for-ableism-and-preciseness-of-language/
Person-first versus identity-first language http://www.thinkinclusive.us/why-person-first-language-doesnt-always-put-the-person-first/
People-first language http://www.inclusionproject.org/nip_userfiles/file/People%20First%20Chart.pdf
Wikipedia: People-first language https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/People-first_language
Wikipedia: disability-related terms with negative connotations https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_disability-related_terms_with_negative_connotations
Ableism and language http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/dasblog/2012/01/31/ableism-and-language/
Communicating With and About People with Disabilities https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/pdf/disabilityposter_photos.pdf
Should You Use Person-First or Identity-First Language? https://themighty.com/2015/08/should-you-use-person-first-or-identity-first-language2/
Identity-First Language http://autisticadvocacy.org/home/about-asan/identity-first-language/