The Power of Language and Labels

The Power of Language and Disability Etiquette Tips

A person’s self-image—their perceptions of themselves and their abilities—is often created by the words that are used about them, whether that person agrees with those words or not. If a person is repeatedly told that they are unable to do something, they may eventually believe it, thus wasting potential meaningful contribution the individual could have made.

In order to emphasize that people with disabilities are capable of living full, independent, integrated lives within their community, we believe it is important to consider how our use of language can affect unconscious attitudes about disability and how our use of language can challenge those attitudes.

For example, when someone says a word like “afflicted”, it harkens to the days of old, when people were stricken by the plague, a contagious malady that justified segregation and isolation from the rest of the population. An “affliction” also entails pain and suffering.

In reality, many people with disabilities are not in pain, nor do they suffer. They should not be segregated and isolated from the rest of the population on the basis of disability.

When someone says a person is “bound” or “confined to a wheelchair”, it implies that a person who uses a wheelchair is somehow shackled to or imprisoned by their chair. In reality, a wheelchair is what allows a person mobility and freedom to travel in their communities. A wheelchair is an agent of independence, not detainment.

If we consciously reframe the way we think and speak about a wheelchair from a life sentence of misery to a mobility aid to increase independence, imagine the implication for people who have recently acquired a disability, people who now need to use a wheelchair. A subtle change of language can tell a person that their life is not over, that they are not confined to anything apart from their own self-image.

A subtle change in language can remind others—and ourselves—that people with disabilities are just that: people. People who have the same hopes, dreams, and desires; people who deserve to be treated as such.

In order to describe disability in a more empowering way, there are two primary schools of thought: People First and Identity First Language.

People First Language involves putting the person before the disability. It is used to explain what a person has and not who a person is. Examples include “person who uses a wheelchair”, “he has low vision”, or “she has a cognitive disability.”

To learn more about People First Language, visit Disability is Natural.

Identity First Language is used in order to “take back the word” and is often used when people see their disability as an integral part of their identity. For example, those who identify as capital “D” Deaf see their deafness as a cultural identity and would rather be called a “Deaf person.”

Identity First Language is also commonly seen in the Autism Community, wherein self-advocates describe their autism as something that heavily influences their perception of the world and cannot be separated from their existence; in this case, the self-advocate would rather be referred to as “autistic” or “an autistic person.”

In general, it is always best to ask what a person prefers if speaking with them personally. It is also important to understand the context in which you are describing the person with a disability. The way you describe someone with a disability within the disability community may differ from the way you describe them to someone outside of the community, and that’s okay! Context matters.

If all this seems like a lot, just treat people like people—adults like adults—and that respect will go a long way.