Language shapes our perspectives both as individuals and as a society, and the language we choose to use can have strong implications when it comes to the way we view those who are different than us. People first language emphasizes that a person is a person - an individual with their own set of likes and needs - above anything else.
For individuals with disabilities, they don’t want their disability to become their main identifier. This is why we at Hand-in-Hand encourage people to say “people with disabilities” rather than “disabled people.” This subtle change, that identifies the individual first, reminds us that the person you are talking about is a person with their own thoughts and feelings. We also want people to avoid language which victimizes individuals with disabilities because this kind of language limits those individuals and makes it seem that their disability leaves them incapable. Using people first language and avoiding terminology which unnecessarily victimizes nudges our society in a more inclusive direction.
The Power of Words
As kids, we often hear the saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” While this children’s rhyme has good intentions, it is far from the truth. In fact, studies have shown that verbal abuse and bullying during the middle school years (a crucial time for brain development) changes the structure of the brain in a negative way. When we feel hurt by something someone has said, the wound may not show on our bodies, but our hurt or offense is still real and can negatively impact how we feel about ourselves.
It’s important to realize that our attitudes about others and the language we use are intertwined and, in turn, can influence our perceptions of others. For example, if you have preconceived ideas about someone (let’s say someone with a disability), you may begin using language that reflects those ideas, which may include offensive or excluding terminology (like using the term “retarded”), which may eventually lead to you actively excluding or discriminating against that person. When our words lead to actions, we must address whether the language we’re using is positive or negative, welcoming or excluding, or helpful or harmful.
Words Can Reinforce (or Eradicate) a Stigma
In order to become a more inclusive society, we must refrain from using language that can inspire prejudice. Outdated words such as “handicapped” or “retarded” act as boundaries between those with and without disabilities, implying that individuals with disabilities are somehow inferior to those without.
The stigma surrounding people with disabilities and the language used to describe them severely limits their opportunities in our society. By using language that reinforces the “us versus them” mentality, we are ensuring that this stigma remains relevant. Individuals with disabilities are fully capable of living successful lives and they do not need our pity, our sympathy, or even our indifference to their existence to overshadow them.
No One is “Bound” by Their Disability
People often use terms such as “wheelchair bound,” “challenged by,” or “suffers from” when describing someone with a disability. These terms lead to the misconception that they’re victims, and oftentimes it leads to the idea that tools which help them function better day-to-day (like wheelchairs) are a bad thing (hint: they’re not! They’re great tools). This terminology is problematic because every individual has varying abilities, and we won’t know what someone is capable of by using language that restrains them. Some people who use wheelchairs are able to stand or even walk on their own, but using the wheelchair allows them to move more easily or with less pain.
Additionally, describing someone as “wheelchair bound” produces the idea that those wheelchair users who are not “confined” to the chair 100% of the time are faking their disability to receive more accommodation. Due to this stigma, some individuals who use wheelchairs are afraid to stand or walk in public in fear of reinforcing this misconception. When it comes to people with disabilities, we should always assume competence - they are more capable than most people without disabilities might think.
What You Can Start Doing
Try to remember that we all encounter challenges in life, and just because individuals with disabilities are often working around challenges every day, doesn’t mean they want to be limited or discriminated against. Put yourself in their shoes for a moment. How would you want someone to talk to and about you? Would you want your disability to constantly be the center of attention?
Although there’s no overall consensus in the disability community in regards to which words are found offensive or oppressive to every individual with disabilities (and we certainly didn’t cover every concern in this blog post), we do know there are certain words, phrases, or ways of addressing individuals that are deemed offensive, and it’s our responsibility to advocate for the avoidance of them. How can we do better? Allow individuals with disabilities to define themselves, periodically research or ask individuals what terminology they prefer, and use people first language to acknowledge that they are individuals above all else.