Language and Disability

People are worried about using the wrong words and causing offence to disabled people; they want to know which words they can safely use, and which they must avoid.

It is important that disabled people are the leaders in the debate around preferred language and terminology, which is why we take the preferred terms from the disabled peoples movement.

The terminology below should be sufficient for general use, but if in doubt ask disabled people what they wish to be called and how they wish to be described. If this is not appropriate, contact Disability Arts Cymru who can advise, or will put you in touch with someone else who can.

Preferred terms

  • Disabled people – an ‘umbrella term’ which fits with the social model of disability
  • Wheelchair users
  • People with mobility impairment
  • People with learning difficulties / people with learning disabilities / learning disabled people
  • Deaf people / hard of hearing people / deafened people
  • Blind people / visually impaired people
  • People with epilepsy / cerebral palsy / (or whatever impairment the person has)
  • People with mental health issues / mental health system survivors
  • Non-disabled people

Although the term ‘disabled people’ can be used quite widely as an umbrella term, the exception is when referring to Deaf people who form the Deaf community and use BSL (British Sign Language) as their first language. Deaf people consider themselves to be a linguistic minority, discriminated against on language issues. Deaf people do not consider themselves to have an impairment. The Deaf community’s perspective on discrimination may well be quite different to a that of deafened or hard-of-hearing people who have lost their hearing later in life, and whose first language will be spoken rather than sign language.

Terms to avoid

  • The disabled / the blind / the deaf etc (don’t say ‘the’ anything!)
  • People with disabilities
  • People who are physically challenged
  • Confined to a wheelchair
  • Handicapped
  • Suffering from…
  • Spastic
  • Insane / unbalanced / mad
  • Retarded
  • People with special needs
  • Able bodied people

What to ask: always focus on access requirements rather than a person’s medical label. “Do you have any access requirements?” or “What can we do to assist you?” are far more useful questions than “What is your impairment?” or (please, no!) “What’s wrong with you”?

Many people get confused and frustrated by the fact that a term which was perfectly acceptable last week may be unacceptable this week. Three good examples of this are the terms ‘special needs’, ‘able bodied’ and ‘people with disabilities’.

‘Special needs’ is still widely used, particularly in educational circles. But that doesn’t make it acceptable – disabled people are fed up with being “special”. Better to focus on equal chances, not special treatment.

‘Able bodied’ implies physical or mental superiority, which is inaccurate and patronising. The use of the term “non-disabled”, however, refers to a person who is not disabled by society as in the Social Model of Disability.

‘People with disabilities’ was popular for many years, but it is rather medical, and focuses un-necessarily on the impairment. Use the Social Model term instead – ‘disabled people’, which means people who are disabled by society.

It really is best only to use labels where they’re absolutely necessary. It’s far better to call people by their names or use whatever other terminology (patron, participants etc) you would use for anybody else.

Don’t worry about reinventing the use of language. We all use figures of speech such as “do you see what I mean?” and “walk this way” and “have you heard from him?” Don’t feel you have to go out of your way to avoid those terms when talking to disabled people.

Above all, don’t get so worried about language that you stop talking to disabled people altogether. Dialogue is crucial if we are to live together in a more inclusive society. If your attitudes are appropriate and you’re willing to listen and learn, the occasional slip of the tongue will be forgiven.

Making people feel welcome

The arts industry is all about making people feel welcome – you want artists and performers to work with your organisation again, and you want the punters to come back. Mostly you know what to do; common courtesy and common sense help the wheels of Best Practice to roll smoothly along. So what should you do when disabled people are working with you or visiting your venue or event?

Here are few typical scenarios…

Wheelchair user struggling to push up carpeted ramp.

Do say: “Would you like some help?”

Don’t: Come up behind the person and grab their chair without asking

Blind person seems unsure which direction to take

Do: Introduce yourself first, then say “Shall I take you to…?” (wherever they are heading for)

Do: Say ‘Would you like to take my arm?’

Do: Describe any steps up or down or any awkward turns before you reach them

Don’t: Grab the person’s arm without a word and trundle them along

You go backstage after a performance by adults with learning difficulties, to tell the cast how much you enjoyed the show

Do: Use ordinary everyday speech such as, “I really enjoyed the show (maybe pick out a couple of things you especially enjoyed) Thank you very much!”

Don’t: Get all overcome and go round patting people on the head.

Disabled person seems to be struggling to get up

Do: Say ‘Can I help?’

Don’t: Take their arm and try to haul them up.

Sometimes it might look as if a disabled person is moving awkwardly, but taking the person’s arm, even gently, could cause a lot of pain, or cause them to over balance. Ask first.

Disabled person says “No thanks” to your offer of help

Do: Say, “Ok” with a smile

Don’t: Feel rejected or worried that you have done something wrong. It is every person’s right to refuse help as well as to accept it, and you have done the right thing by offering.

The ‘Don’t’s in these examples sound rather over the top, but annoying things like this happen to disabled people all the time. One ex-actress is still reeling from the time many years ago when she was patted on the head after a performance!

As with anyone else, common courtesy and common sense help smooth over any slight awkwardness. Always remember, if in doubt about how to help, ask first!

To keep up to date with language issues, the best way is to follow the example of organisations led by disabled people:

Disability Arts Cymru’s website

DASh’s website (Disability Arts Shropshire)

DADA South’s website

Disability Wales’ website

United Kingdom Disabled People’s Council website

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