Disability and the Language that We Use by Dr. Abigail Akande
As a researcher and Assistant Professor of Rehabilitation and Human Services in the United States, my own training has positioned me to utilize person-first language under most circumstances. Unlike disability-first language, which places the emphasis on a person’s health condition or diagnosis, person-first language encourages a primary focus on the individual. In a world where people with disabilities experience the greatest marginalization, the professional rehabilitation community is encouraged to understand the role that language can play in exacerbating discrimination and stigma. Language comprises thoughts, feelings, legislation, curriculum, and interpersonal communications.
The empowerment model of disability takes on a strengths-based perspective, with the goal of optimizing the possibilities and opportunities for a person with a disability. Yet sometimes the language that is used to describe, reference, or address a person with a disability takes on a deficits-perspective. The intentions behind disability-first language vary – whether they are to insult or to state what is believed to be factual. However, we need to be concerned if certain language contributes to the relegation of people with disabilities to the outskirts of their respective societies.
What does disability-first language look like? It might be referring to someone as “wheelchair bound” or crippled, while more objective phrases could be “wheelchair user” or “person with paraplegia.” The former examples assign negative values to the individual and assume a lesser quality of life, while the latter examples do not. Other labels, such as “retarded,” “feeble-minded,” or “idiot,” are all examples of terms that were once used by medical professionals in the U.S. and were considered diagnostic in nature, but are now outdated, taboo and have become colloquial terms specifically for derogatory purposes. Disability-first language can also manifest itself in how we first approach conversations or interactions with people. Questions like “what happened to you?”, staring at people with visible disabilities without saying anything to them, and laughing at them or talking about them with someone else are all examples of how our societies focus on disability first, and not the fact that this individual is a person first.
Disability-first language is often attributed to the medical model of disability, where the “problem” of the incurable condition lies within the patient and cannot be separated from them. This perspective is pervasive among health and medical professionals around the world. Culture, religion, education, and socioeconomic status are inextricably linked in creating these perspectives within our societies as well. A cultural shift in the way that people think about those with disabilities and their potentials (regarding education, employment, intimate relationships, independence, etc.) is fundamental. I argue that the foundation of a disability movement is empathy, appreciation, and allyship. And we cannot pursue nor maintain human rights for people with disabilities in any country if we do not empathize with their experiences, appreciate their value and contributions, and actively support them in reaching their goals. How we feel about people with disabilities is closely connected to what we say about them.
It is important to note that certain terminology may be perceived negatively by some, and not others. And people with genuinely good intentions can simply use language that is typical of where they are, without overt knowledge of the potential for a negative impact. Conversely, person-first language can also be taken offensively by people with disabilities who strongly identify with their conditions and want people to know that. For instance, the term “differently-abled” is preferred by some with disabilities, with the desire to omit words with the “dis-” prefix – meaning not or none (i.e. disabled, diseased). And people within the Deaf community in the United States refer to themselves as such with a capital “D.”
An individual’s preferences cannot be known without speaking with them first, but we should try to make a good faith effort. The general rule is that person-first language is the safest approach because it is less likely for someone to be offended as a result. Whatever type of language is used, it really is the heart and the intentions behind those words that matter the most. And more importantly, our actions will qualify our words and speak for us all.
DR. ABIGAIL O. AKANDE
Dr. Akande is an Assistant Professor of Rehabilitation & Human Services at the Pennsylvania State University – Abington College, in the United States.