Words To Use, To Avoid When Talking About Disabilities

Donald TrumpPresidential candidate Donald Trump grabbed headlines again last week when he uttered what many considered a tasteless remark about a reporter.

He accompanied his comment, “Now the poor guy — you ought to see the guy,” by flailing his arms and hands while bending his right wrist.

Some claim Trump’s intention was to mimic reporter Serge Kovaleski, who has arthrogryposis, a chronic condition that affects joints and limits the function of arms and hands. Trump denies the claim.

To turn a negative into a positive, let’s look for the grammar lesson here: What words are appropriate when referring to disabilities?

Disability defined
A disability is a physical or mental condition caused by bodily injury, birth defect or illness that limits a person’s movements, senses or activities.

The words we use when talking about disabilities have changed over time. Some scorn “politically correct” terms that are intended to avoid hurtful or demeaning descriptions.

I strive to use language that is respectful and humane, to select words that show sensitivity and consideration.

My online search yielded a number of helpful websites that address how we refer to people who experience life with disabilities. This is one of the best: Guidelines for Writing About People With Disabilities

In addition to the tips that follow, consider specific disabilities and what words to use or not to use when talking about each one. What a great resource for employees, family and friends.

What to say, what to avoid

    •  Refer to a person’s disability only when it is related to what you are talking about. For example, don’t ask “What’s wrong with you?” Don’t refer to people in general or generic terms such as “the girl in the wheelchair.”
    •  When talking about places with accommodations for people with disabilities, use the term “accessible” rather than “disabled” or “handicapped.” For example, refer to an “accessible” parking space rather than a “disabled” or “handicapped” parking space or “an accessible bathroom stall” rather than “a handicapped bathroom stall.”
    •  Use the term “disability,” and take the following terms out of your vocabulary when talking about or talking to people with disabilities. Don’t use the terms “handicapped,” “differently-abled,” “cripple,” “crippled,” “victim,” “retarded,” “stricken,” “poor,” “unfortunate,” or “special needs.”
    •  Just because someone has a disability, it doesn’t mean he/she is “courageous,” “brave,” “special,” or “superhuman.” People with disabilities are the same as everyone else. It is not unusual for someone with a disability to have talents, skills, and abilities.
    •  It is okay to use words or phrases such as “disabled,” “disability,” or “people with disabilities” when talking about disability issues. Ask the people you are with which term they prefer if they have a disability.
    •  When talking about people without disabilities, it is okay to say “people without disabilities.” But do not refer to them as “normal” or “healthy.” These terms can make people with disabilities feel as though there is something wrong with them and that they are “abnormal.”

Bring conversation to eye level
From training I did in professional presence years ago, I learned that when you have a conversation with someone in a wheelchair, you should make every effort to pull up a chair of your own or suggest moving to a spot where you both are at the same eye level, rather than towering above the person.

We all can learn to hone our sensitivity when it comes to communicating with or about people with disabilities. Our words and tone matter.

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)

2 thoughts on “Words To Use, To Avoid When Talking About Disabilities

  1. AvatarJason Strong

    I’ve been wanting to learn more about disability claims and how they work. There are so many things that go into this part of our economy though and I’m not sure where to start. This article has some great points that have helped me understand this more.

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