Language Matters: Talking About Disabilities

By Crystal Ladwig, Ph. D.
Three people, one in a wheel chair, cheers drinks

People are sometimes surprised when they learn the history of words we hear daily. Did you know that words like “idiot,” “imbecile,” and “moron” were once official terms used to describe people with intellectual disabilities? Over time, those terms were replaced by others, such as “retarded” or “mentally handicapped.” As terms gain use as insults, those in the disability community routinely change the terminology. These changes can be confusing, especially when different terms are used in schools, doctors’ offices and legislation. So, how do we talk about our children with disabilities as we advocate and support them?

What’s the Big Deal?

The way people talk about disabilities matters. This includes the labels used to describe disabilities (e.g., autism, intellectual disability, learning disability, etc.) as well as words associated with access
and ability. If people repeatedly hear others using words as insults that their teachers, family and doctors use to describe them, they naturally begin to feel like there is something wrong with them or with who they are. This is especially true of children. Consider the sensitivities of saying that someone is “confined to a wheelchair” or is “wheelchair bound” when it is the wheelchair itself that supports the person’s mobility. Instead, we can choose to focus on the person and not mention the wheelchair at all. If a child asks about the chair, we can explain that the person uses the wheelchair to help them move around better, just as many people use glass to help them see better.

What Should I Say?

A general rule of thumb is to avoid using words that you hear others use as insults or jokes. That seems like common sense, but we hear words describing disabilities and disorders used like this every day. Consider what it is like for the parent of a child diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) to see memes about people who thrive on structure and routine being called “so OCD” when their child spends ten hours a day ritualizing, obsessing and worrying. And what about that parent struggling in the grocery store with a teenager who seems to be having a temper tantrum? Many of us have heard the whispers and comments about the “bad parent” or the “spoiled child” without knowing that our children have disabilities that others cannot see.

Instead, let’s focus on the person. Someone may have Down Syndrome, autism or dyslexia. Someone may use a wheelchair, wear hearing aids or have a service dog. Those terms may describe what a person has and how that shapes their human experience, but they do not define who that person is.

What About Schools?

Because of the legal requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and other civil rights legislation, specific terms are used and defined to describe disabilities in schools. These terms, like Learning Disabilities, Intellectual Disabilities, Physical Disabilities and Visual Impairments, are used only to determine service eligibility.

What’s Next?

Once again, we are seeing a shift in the language used to talk about people with disabilities. One in particular is gaining traction: neurodivergent. Simply put, it means a person’s brain works differently than others. Still confused? Don’t worry. People with disabilities and those who love and work with them know that the language changes frequently. If you’re worried about saying the wrong thing, just ask. If you have a disability or are the parent of a child with a disability, consider how you want others talking about you and your child.

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