Jul 23, 2015

Referring to people with disabilities: A how-to guide

Ever wonder how to refer to people with disabilities without being offensive? Louisa Willoughby has some rules to follow that should avoid any unintended rudeness.

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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5 thoughts on “Referring to people with disabilities: A how-to guide

  1. Louisa Willoughby

    Hi Ari,

    very good point, and lovely to ‘meet’ you here 🙂

    In technical writing I’ll use ‘Deaf and hard of hearing’ or ‘blind and partially sighted’, but those become mouthfuls in casual speech. Ultimately comes down to who your audience is and their personal preferences really – in my case I find the ‘challenged’ constructions have a note of patronism/ paternalism to them so I tend to avoid them, but not everyone will read them this way.

    Best wishes


  2. Ari Sharp

    Hi Louisa,

    Thanks for an insightful piece.

    I’m all for simple language choices wherever possible. The concern I have with “blind” and “deaf” is that they imply absoluteness – ie, no ability to see or to hear.

    However, “sight-challenged” and “hearing-challenged” imply either partial or total restriction on ability to see and hear.

    Without knowing the extent of the person’s limitation, I prefer to rely on the broader “-challenged” construction.
    Or “blindish” or “deafish”. Perhaps not.

    Best wishes,
    Ari (a friend from way back)

  3. Lauren Gawne

    @Rosemary – There is a whole world of debate within disability communities and related domains about “person-first language” and “identity-first language” – here’s a quick summary on Language Log this week:

    Some communities have their own preferences for language use (for example the Deaf community have their own preferences) and different people with the same condition may also find that standard modes of address annoy them personally, etc.

  4. Rosemary Stanton

    We should also desist from referring to people by their disease. So rather than diabetics, they are people with diabetes, or we have people with coeliac disease (not coeliacs).

    Last week I noticed an extreme example when the Herald referred to someone as “an anaphylactic”. Since a person who may have an anaphylactic reaction to something is unlikely to find this happening more than once or twice in their entire lives, it seems particularly galling that it should form their main descriptor.

  5. aliso6

    If that’s linguistics…yikes!

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