As a linguist working in disability studies and a friend of a number of blind people I come across a lot of howlers when well-meaning people attempt to euphemise terms for blindness. Unsighted; Differently sighted; Sight-challenged. As a friend remarked on the last one “seeing for me is not a challenge – if anything I’m sight-impossibled!”.

So what’s the process going on here, and what are the actual ground rules for talking about disability in a way that is courteous and respectful but doesn’t sound like you swallowed a thesaurus?

Most of these euphemisms come about because people are aware that some terms for disability – like some terms for race – are offensive and shouldn’t be used. But unlike racist language, people outside the disability sphere often don’t know which terms are considered offensive and apply a logic of ‘if I’ve heard of the term it must be bad so I need to DIY my own euphemism’. Fortunately this is not the case, and there are some relatively straight-forward rules about which terms can be used:

Rule one: Could I use the term to insult a new TV show?

Many older terms for specific disabilities have become general insults: spastic, lame, retarded. If your disability term of choice would be equally happy ending the sentence “I’m not watching that show, it sounds…”, you need to find a new term.

Rule two: Does it focus on what people can’t do?

Terms like impairment, handicapped or a sufferer are problematic because they are negatively loaded and imply that life with a disability is a vale of tears or filled with missed opportunities. In fact, most people with life-long disabilities don’t hold this view and will be able to accomplish all sorts of things (skydiving, becoming a barrister, raising kids as a single parent) with a bit of lateral thinking and appropriate accommodations.

Rule three: Am I making a diagnosis?

One way that we euphemise a lot in everyday talk is to take refuge in medical terms. If someone has already told you that they lost their legs in an accident then it’s absolutely fine to refer to them as an amputee, but if you don’t know, don’t assume. Misapplied diagnoses often irritate people as they show that you’re making assumptions about their condition

Rule four: Use neutral descriptors unless told otherwise. 

Blind. Wheelchair user. Autistic. What all these terms have in common is that they succinctly describe a condition without making any judgements about what the person can and can’t do or the causes of their disability. These are the best terms to use if in doubt, but – like all things in life – you may sometimes meet people who prefer to use other terms. In that case of course, common courtesy is to follow the preference of the person with a disability when referring to their condition.

Dr Louisa Willoughby is a Lecturer in Linguistics at Monash University. Her main research interest is in issues affecting speakers of minority languages, particularly in education and health settings. She is also interested in language and identity and Deaf/Disability studies. She has published widely, including in Journal of Multilingualism and Multicultural Development, International Journal of Multilingualism and Current Issues in Language Planning.

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