Do perceptions matter?
Page 6: Language Preferences
The language we choose to express ourselves not only conveys meaning but also communicates attitudes, perceptions, and emotions. For example, there are a number of words to describe someone who is quiet or reserved in social situations: introverted, shy, aloof, bashful, timid, diffident. Note that some of these words carry a more positive or negative connotation than the others. If this were you and you could only use one of these words to describe yourself, which would you prefer? Can you be adequately represented by just one word?
Among people with disabilities and their families, language is an especially important issue, particularly as it pertains to the use of positive terminology. Over time, language shifts and changes. Words that were once considered acceptable or preferred may later take on derogatory meanings or offensive connotations. For example, although “crippled” was once commonly used to refer to people with mobility issues, it is now considered unacceptable.
Although disability-related language can be confusing, it is our responsibility to learn about currently accepted terminology and respect individual preferences. We should avoid outdated terms, use positive or neutral descriptions, and consider language preferences when referring to or speaking with individuals with disabilities.
When referring to disabilities or individuals with disabilities, we should use current terms rather than those that are outdated, negative, or derogatory. Outdated terms can have a de-humanizing effect and may lead to the exclusion of people with disabilities from classrooms, workplaces, and community life. Currently accepted terms acknowledge that disability is part of the human condition and help create a more inclusive educational system and society. The table below highlights some current terms that have replaced those that are now deemed unacceptable.
|Current Terms||Outdated Terms|
|A person with a disability||Handicapped|
Did You Know?
At one point in history, mental retardation was a clinical term used to refer to people with a specific set of characteristics. Over the years, variations on this term (e.g., retard or retarded) have been used in a derogatory manner to insult or to demean others. Used this way, these thoughtless and hurtful terms reflect negative stereotypes about people with intellectual disabilities.
Positive or Neutral Descriptions
When referring to individuals with disabilities, we should use terms that reflect positive or neutral meanings, rather than those that convey negative assumptions or judgments. For instance, a person who uses a wheelchair considers it a tool that provides greater mobility, and not as something that is confining. Ironically, an individual would be more confined without the wheelchair to get from place to place. The table below offers examples of positive and neutral terms as well as those with negative connotations.
|Positive and Neutral Terms||Negative Terms|
|A person who uses a wheelchair||
A person who is confined to a wheelchair
|A person with a learning disability||Learning disabled|
|A person who has microcephaly||A person who suffers from microcephaly|
|A Deaf person||Deaf-and-dumb|
|A person with an emotional disorder||
Although we should use terms that reflect positively on the person with a disability, keep in mind that the connotation surrounding some terminology is subjective. In fact, some words that were once deemed negative are now being reclaimed by the disability community. For example, although the word “crippled” is generally considered unacceptable to use, some individuals with mobility issues have begun reclaiming this word or variations of it (e.g., “crip”) as personal identifiers. However, as is often the case in our society, those who belong to a group can refer to themselves in ways that are considered unacceptable for those outside the group. As such, it is best to have a discussion to identify the terms that each person prefers. Similarly, when we think about the larger disability community, rather than specific disabilities, opinions vary on those terms as well. For example, some people find the term special needs offensive and prefer disability, while others have no problem with the term.
People-First and Identity-First Language
When talking with or referring to individuals with disabilities, we should ask about and respect their language preferences. In the disability community, some people prefer the use of people-first language while others choose to use identity-first language. The distinction here is the order in which the person and the disability occur.
People-first language: Also referred to as person-first language, this preference refers to the person before the disability (e.g., person with a disability, student with ADHD, students who receive special education services) and avoids labels associated with the disability. Advocates for people-first language prefer to keep the primary focus on the individual, rather than the disability, to support and maintain respect and dignity for the person. They feel that referring to the disability first focuses on the disability and can perpetuate stereotypes.
Did You Know?
Identity-first language comes from the Disability Pride movement—a movement that combats discrimination and prejudice against disabled people and celebrates having a disability, human diversity, and inclusion.
Identity-first language: This preference refers to the disability before the person (e.g., disabled person). Advocates for identity-first language feel that their disability is an integral part of their identity, which can also include membership within a larger group (e.g., the Deaf community). Many apply identity-first language to express their disability pride, choosing statements like “I am disabled” instead of “I have a disability.” Conversely, they believe that people-first language attempts to separate the individual from the disability, perpetuating negative connotations associated with disability.
Both perspectives promote choice, dignity, and self-determination for those in the disability community. The table below provides examples that compare people-first language with identity-first language.
|People-First Language||Identity-First Language|
|Person with a disability||Disabled person|
|Student with autism||Autistic student|
|Adult who is deaf||Deaf adult|
|Child with a developmental disability||Developmentally disabled child|
|Person who is blind||Blind person|
When determining whether to use people-first or identity-first language, we can show respect by asking individuals about their preferences. In the following videos, Andre explains why he prefers person-first language while Eddy shares why he prefers identity-first language.
Although the students above can use oral speech to express their language preferences, other individuals with disabilities may be unable to do so. In this case, it is acceptable to defer to the family’s preference. Because Taylor Smith—the young man with Angelman Syndrome who you met on Page 1—is unable to use oral speech to express himself, his family articulates how they desire the world to perceive and refer to Taylor. Taylor’s brother, Lance, addresses the issue of language and terminology in his poem, Special Needs World, a portion of which he performs in the video below (time: 1:42).
Take some time to think about and discuss the following scenarios.
Scenario 1: Someone you know uses the word retarded in a derogatory fashion to refer to someone who has a disability or casually uses the word retarded to refer to a friend who does not have a disability.
Scenario 2: A teacher in your school refers to a student as “that child who suffers from cerebral palsy.”
Scenario 3: A new family attends your school’s open house night. The student has a disability. One of your colleagues uses people-first language when addressing the student.
- Discuss how you would approach these situations.
- Brainstorm several different ways you could respond.