Disability Isn’t a Bad Word
A How-to Guide for my College Peers & Administrators
“I’d like to have a learning moment,” I laughed. “If you don’t mind.”
I was sitting in my Universities office of Diversity & Inclusion. It was a weekday and I was between classes. There were a couple of other people in the room; people I felt comfortable with. There was nothing confrontational about the situation. Just typical college day.
The topic of conversation was disability — specifically the language. I was listening to one of the other girls talk about an organization that was focused on empowering young adults with developmental disabilities. As she was describing the organizations work, I was struck by the words she chose — something along the lines of “helping people suffering from a handicap.”
That’s when I raised my hand. “As a learning moment, I think it’s important to kind of unpack what you just said. In the disability community, we never use to words ‘handicap’ or ‘suffering from’ to describe someone’s disability.”
I paused, “We’re not suffering. We’re just living our lives in a different way.”
This is the kind of language that I’m used to hearing on my college campus; not out of disrespect, but more out of a lack of education. I’m constantly reminded that people are rarely educated on these issues — and that’s okay too. It’s an opportunity to talk about them; not something to be ashamed of.
The questions during the conversations are almost always the same.
Why is handicap a slur? What about words like ‘special’? Isn’t the word disability just as bad? When you say “able-bodied” what do you mean? What exactly is person first language? How does that even work?
So today, I’m going to break down all of those questions for you in the best way that I can. I encounter this a lot in my college classes and every day university life. I hear it from administrators, professors, and students alike all the time. Here’s what you need to know:
Why you should never ever say the word handicapped.
Handicapped is generally considered a slur in the disabled community for a number of reasons, but the best way I can explain it is by asking you what you envision when you first think of the world Handicap. I’d like you to pay attention to the connotation of that word too. Both are important. When I ask people this question, they usually say something along the lines of “a person in a wheelchair.” My follow up question to you is to think about that person’s life: are they capable? Do you see this person as successful? Do you even see them as human?
The word handicapped has a number of problematic connotations: the word implies inherent inability. It implies not being able to function; separation from society as a whole. It’s a lot like the word “special” in the way that it separates people. People with disabilities rarely refer to themselves as handicapped (unless they do, then that’s their own choice and it’s fine), but rather get labeled it by able bodied people. It comes from a time in our history where disabled people were kept away from the rest of the world. There’s nothing empowering about that word. I would compare it to someone referring to the LGBT community as “the homosexuals.” No one in the community uses that language and it almost always comes from a harmful place.
Like I said before, words like “special” has the same connotation. There’s nothing “special” about disabled people. What we need is accommodations — equity. Then we are just people. Everyone needs different things to succeed in life. We are not special for that.
What should I use instead?
Rather than using words like this, I encourage people to use the word “accessible” and “disabled/disability.” Saying “accessible parking” and not “handicapped parking” is always better. Even saying “disability services” or “accessibility services’ is way better than “special education” or “special accommodations.” Like I said, we’re not special. We’re people with different needs.
There’s a debate in the disability community about “person first language” — saying “person with a disability” as opposed to “disabled person.” This comes from the idea that the person is what’s important, not the disability. However, if a person with a disability identifies as just “disabled,” then it’s not the place of an able bodied person to correct that identity. It’s not negative for them to say that; they’re the one claiming themselves. This is the same for any language. For example, the essay “On Being a Cripple” by Nancy Mairs, she talks about claiming her identity as a “cripple” because it’s the identity she uses for herself. You might also see hashtags like #cripplepunk or #cripthevote on social media. These are tools designed specifically for people with disabilities — they’re allowed to use these terms. You are not.
What is an able bodied person?
A person without a disability. Keep in mind that the words “able-bodied person” can also be the wrong way to talk about someone without a disability. Not all disabilities are physical. Disabilities like Autism spectrum disorders have nothing to do with a person’s body. While saying a person is “able bodied” is appropriate, you should also consider that this term is not always inclusive to everyone under the disability umbrella. For a more generalized term, try using words like “non-disabled.”
There are also lots of people who don’t identify as having a disability. These people may say they are non-disabled, but might not be aware or think that they do have a disability. This is something that I run into a lot on my college campus. Students don’t feel that they are “disabled enough” or even “disabled” by their condition, but could clearly benefit from services. This has a lot to do with negative perspectives of being disabled — because of words like handicapped or special that single disabled people out as something different and bad. This is particularly a struggle for college students who never learned about the resources an institution has because they’re afraid to engage with them. This is why disability positive language on a college campus is so important! Disability is not a bad word!!
Why isn’t it a bad word?
I often compare the word “disability” or “disabled” to the word “queer” in the LGBT community. It had negative connotations until the community took it back. Similarly, the word “fat” has always had a negative connotation, but body positivity activists are working hard online to change the stigma — it’s literally just a description of a person (not an insult). This is the same thing with the word “disabled.” Disability is not something to be ashamed of! It’s a descriptor! It’s what you are! That’s okay! Did you know that 20% of the world population has a disability? That’s so many people!
Other words never to use in the context of people with disabilities:
I point these out because they just have bad implications. Words like “suffering” are harmful because they imply that our lives are always bad. People who use wheelchairs or have a physical condition are not suffering. Actually, using a mobility aid like a walker can be incredibly freeing! This is why the entire disability community was so upset with the descriptions of Stephen Hawking when he died. He wasn’t being “freed” from the illness he was “suffering from.” He was living his life. The wheelchair gave him freedom.
Next is my favorite: Inspiration. We are not here to inspire you! Disabled people do not want to be in your Facebook posts and videos praising disabled people for functioning! This is a harmful narrative. We just want to go out into the world, doing the best we can, with what we have! There’s nothing inspiring about that. Here’s a great TED Talk going into it in more detail: “Inspiration” has a similar connotation to other words like “overcoming” and “despite.” Talking about disability is a fine line between recognizing and celebrating a person’s disability, but also not using words to insinuate that disability is something negative. If you use these words, you’re immediately saying that the person is getting over an impossible obstacle, something negative, instead of saying that they’re a person who just happens to have a disability. Want to know why living with a disability might be seen as impossible? It’s not us. It’s the world around us making it difficult. If you want to make it easier, then make the world accessible! Then there won’t be obstacles. Disability isn’t an obstacle. It’s just something we live with.