For the longest time, even before I became a special educator I remember feeling uncomfortable with the labels and terms used when referring to neurodiversity and individuals with disabilities. I heard terms like “handicapped”, “crippled”, “low”, “divine”, or even “retarded” casually thrown around and even though I felt deeply disturbed by this, I did not know any better. This changed over the course of the past two years when through a trial and error process, I found certain phrases and words that are not only sensitive but also acknowledges the person to be more than their disability. Through this blog post, I hope to share some alternatives to the language commonly used when referring to individuals with disabilities and why this is important for building more inclusive and sensitive societies.
Let me start with the “why” first. According to the social model of disability, an individual can be “disabled” or “handicapped” by societal structures and not just their disability. For example, a person might be using a wheelchair for mobility, but they can in fact be equally disbaled by the poor infrastructure or inaccessible buildings that they encounter on a daily basis. Here is another example. A person who is hearing impaired might require sign language when they are watching the news in order to access the information. The absence of sign language is a “barrier” to them understanding the news. If a child with a learning disability has difficulty processing lots of written work but this is the primary mode of instruction, then that can also be seen as a barrier hindering the child’s learning. The social model of disability views disability or additional needs to not arise from the individual themselves, but from environmental structures that act as barriers preventing individuals with disabilities from reaching their full potential. This could be societal stigma, poor infrastructure, lack of awareness, amongst others.
While I agree that it is daunting to change extremely old perceptions, we can make a beginning by changing our language, both individually and collectively. If we refer to someone as “disabled”, or “handicapped” then we are locating the disability to be inherent or “inside” the individual. However when we use “person with disability” then we put the person first and look at disability to be one amongst many other characteristics that a person might have. This is similar to cancer or diabetes. We would never refer to someone as being “cancerous” ! We would say a person with cancer. Secondly, when we rephrase our language towards disability, to say person with autism as opposed to autistic, we place more importance on the part of the society to respond better to this diversity.
As parents of children who are neurodiverse or who have disabilities, adopting this vocabulary can be an important step for empowering yourself as a family and sensitizing those around you. Below, I am sharing some common alternative phrases that I have discovered to be more sensitive and inclusive. However as always, I would highly recommend directly checking with the individual and their families on how to be addressed. Some might have preferences, and it is important to respect the individual’s wishes and comply with how they wish to be identified. I hope it helps, and please feel free to share more ideas for me to incorporate into my toolkit !