News

8 disability terms you need to familiarize yourself with

Here's a breakdown of the words you should - and shouldn't - use when referring to a person with a disability.

I spent this past weekend in and out of dozens of journalism workshops at the Online News Association’s 2016 Conference. During one of the workshops I attended, a conversation about workplace diversity, we discussed the difficulty in pinpointing the right words when describing people to use in our writing.

It sure seemed like it would help if our news organizations could develop a style-guide for diversity. After all, publications often have style-guides for basic grammar rules (serial comma or no serial comma?) or location-specific lingo. Wouldn’t it be great if they could settle on inclusive language that could better represent people?

In that spirit, here’s the beginning of a style-guide for newsrooms to consider (and for all of us to use in our daily lives!). Since diversity can include so many issues (race, gender, class, sexuality, and on), we’ve focused on some of the most important terms from one (incredibly under-discussed) topic for now: disability.

1. Non-Disabled 

CNN.com
CNN.com

“Able-bodied” is the way many people refer to those who don’t have disabilities, but it’s not the preferred term. Saying “able-bodied” assumes that people with disabilities do not have able bodies (many do, such as those with intellectual disabilities or mental illnesses). Instead, try non-disabled.

2. Person with a disability 

SurvivingToxicMold.com
SurvivingToxicMold.com

If you’re referring to a person, you should definitely avoid handicap or handicapped, and try person with a disability instead. Also, you’ve probably heard of handicap parking, but the preferred phrasing is actually accessible parking. You can use handicap in some occasions though, like when talking about obstacles: for example, “The lack of accessible parking handicapped Maria’s ability to go to the store.”

3. Intellectual disability 

Mental-Illness-Is.Tumblr.com
Mental-Illness-Is.Tumblr.com

Intellectual disabilities are non-congenital (not related to genetics) disabilities that develop in people usually before the age of 18. These disabilities generally affect intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior. Do use “person with an intellectual disability,” don’t use “retard” or “mentally retarded.”

4. Mental Illness

Pinterest.com
Pinterest.com

Mental illness is the preferred term for referring to a psychiatric condition such as an anxiety, mood, or schizophrenia disorder. Mental disorder is sometimes acceptable as well, but never use “crazy,” “insane,” or other derogatory language. Like other disabilities, keep people-first language in mind: “She is living with depression” and not “She is depressed.”

5. People-first language

Wales.NHS.uk
Wales.NHS.uk

People like to be known as human beings rather than simply someone with a specific characteristic. Instead of saying “a mentally-ill person” try “a person with a mental illness.” It’s a quick and kind way to remember that people are people, first and foremost.

6. People with a disability

DisabilityRightsMD.org
DisabilityRightsMD.org

Put that person-first language to good use! “Person with a disability” is the preferred way of referring to someone with a disability. Not “disabled person” not “the disabled” or any other slang or derogatory language you may have learned in middle school.

7. Wheelchair-user 

Commons.WikiMedia.org
Commons.WikiMedia.org

Mobility equipment is hugely important for many people living with disabilities. Feel free to acknowledge that by saying “people who use wheelchairs,” but avoid language like “confined to a wheelchair.” Wheelchairs help people get around (just like glasses help people see or crutches help people walk), and there isn’t anything “confining” about them.

8. A(n), the

MIUSA.org
MIUSA.org

As in, “an epileptic” or “the Blind”. Avoid using language like this! It groups people together into categories based on one trait and erases individual experience.

Here are some words that you should never use (unless you’re a member of the disabled community looking to reclaim them): crippleretardsufferervictiminvaliddefectspastic.

Join the conversation and make your own style-guides for inclusive language! The way we talk about each other changes our perception of the world – let’s make sure we’re speaking up and speaking kindly.