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Terms like “differently abled” do more harm than good. Here’s why you shouldn’t use them, and what to say instead.
An inclusive and diverse environment isn't just about hiring people that “look good” on the brochure. Organizations that value differences reflect it in their communication. The nuance isn’t always easy to point out. Even for those of us with the best intentions, implicit biases may help our feet into our mouths more often than we’d like to admit.
Search the term “politically correct,” and you’ll find it defined as the “belief that language and actions that could be offensive to others, especially those relating to sex and race, should be avoided.”
Frankly, that answer sounds a bit politically correct. There’s nothing wrong with trying to avoid offending others. However, determining what others will find offensive — without including them — is demeaning.
The attempt to use non-offensive language is noble. But highlighting individuals with disabilities as needing special treatment contributes to harmful stereotypes about disability — both visible and invisible.
Well-meaning people may try to use words that seem inclusive, yet muddy the waters. This can cause confusion and leave others feeling even more misunderstood. That’s how we end up with cringe-inducing terms like “handicapable,” “challenged,” “special needs,” and “differently abled.”
According to PhraseFinder, the term “differently abled” was created by the U.S. Democratic National Committee as an alternative to “handicapped.” Dating back to the 1980s, the website goes on to say that:
The motivation seems to have been both a genuine attempt to view the people previously called handicapped in a more positive light and also a need to be seen as politically correct. However, some have seen the label as a euphemistic attempt to disguise the difficulties experienced by people who have serious physical or mental handicaps.
If you’re sensing a theme, you’re on to something. Despite what we say the motivations are, these “euphemistic” terms serve two purposes. People use them to try to eliminate potentially offensive terms. But the main purpose is to eliminate the discomfort of the group doing the naming.
Besides, the term “differently abled” doesn’t describe what it’s meant to anyway. The term “disabled” means having a physical or mental impairment that limits movements, senses, or activities. There are no connotations of “lesser” or the condescension that accompanies terms like “handicapable.”
As Stephen Stern, professor at Gettysburg College, explains:
I am learning disabled. I am not “differently abled.” I have heard the story of a colleague at another institution who after suffering a stroke lost his sense of spatial awareness...But after the stroke, he suddenly found that he has computational capacities he had never before possessed. He could do quantitative work he had been incapable of before. This person became differently abled. That is not true of me.
Disabilities don’t add a fun level of complexity to life. In a world that is ableist — designed without real consideration towards the “differently abled” — they make life harder. As disability activist and Paralympic Medalist Elizabeth Wright says, terms like “differently abled” take “the disabled person’s daily struggles, that are caused by ableist society, and attempts to turn these experiences into something positive and uplifting.”
It’s not the job of the dominant culture to rename a group. Those with privilege can't step in to advocate for change without the input of the group they’re advocating for. In doing so, they let themselves and society off the hook. Wright explains:
This is why the disabled community find terms like “differently abled,” “special,” and “inspirational” problematic. Ableists may think that they are being positive and uplifting for disabled people, but in essence it is a mask, a covering up of their own uncomfortable feelings about disability.
Being a better ally means using your privilege to advocate for the way the underrepresented group wants to be recognized. It doesn’t mean saying whatever sounds “politically correct.” Eliminating offense is a lesser goal than eliminating exclusive behavior.
As writer and disability rights activist Emily Ladau puts it in her piece for the Center for Disability Rights, we are all differently abled. The use of the term implies a “standard body” that has standard skills, and a “standard mind” that thinks in standard ways. Who among us really fits that description? We all have ways of navigating the world that utilize our unique strengths and compensate for our weaknesses. Different is standard, and it’s those who have had the privilege of designing the world around themselves that don’t think so.
If you want to move past correctness and into progress, here are 5 ways to better represent people with disabilities:
1. Use the terms “disabled” or “people with disabilities”
Whether it makes you uncomfortable, use the preferred term that the person you’re describing is comfortable with. Euphemisms contribute to the masking of the real problem. Wright elaborates:
By denying the very term disability we are removing disability from the equation. Society ceases to be the problem. The world doesn’t need to be fixed or challenged around ableism because there is nothing to fix. There is nothing to fix because the individual isn’t disabled — just differently abled.
Using the phrase differently-abled implies that accommodating disability is not society's responsibility. Changing language to take another's experience into account is a step towards actually improving it.
2. Ask if the language you’re using is even necessary
Why are you mentioning disability, or any other defining characteristic? That’s not to say you can’t talk about differences, but are they necessary to the conversation you’re having? Does an individual’s disability add important information to the dialogue?
For example, if you’re discussing a venue for an after-work mixer, it makes sense to ask about the accessibility of the location. Whether talking about individuals or groups, don't use the article “the” combined with a disability.
Don’t say: The dyslexics might have trouble reading that font.
Do say: Can we review the presentation to improve visibility?
3. Drop the word “normal”
The use of the word “normal” is problematic on the best of days. But you should never use it to describe able-bodied people “in contrast” to those with disabilities.
Don’t say: Avery performed as well as all the normal managers.
Do say: Avery’s performance review went well.
Unless you’re describing something that actually is 100% normal and a universal experience, you’ll do better to just stop using the word to describe people entirely.
4. Avoid language that “pities” people with disabilities
Disabled individuals are not courageous — well, at least not for getting out of bed. They are not “heroic,” “special,” or “inspiring.” They are people. Using these terms is condescending and demeaning. It “others” people in a way that reinforces stigmas associated with disability.
Likewise, when describing a specific disability, avoid using terms like “wheelchair-bound” or “confined to a wheelchair.” The same applies to terms like “victim” or “suffering from.” These phrases assume a negative experience that isn’t a given. Wheelchairs don’t confine people, but making people feel small does.
5. Recognize that not all disabilities are visible
People that have visible differences or a physical disability often get singled out in undesirable ways. On the other hand, those who have other disabilities, such as those with mood disorders, neurological differences, learning disabilities, or chronic health conditions may get lost in the shuffle. In fact, of the 42 million Americans living with a disability, 96% are invisible illnesses.
Perhaps the most effective way to make these environments inclusive is to include a variety of people in their design. A person who uses a wheelchair may have no qualms with all corporate learning happening via slideshow — but someone with dyslexia might. You don't have to ask people to disclose personal information. Simply give everyone an opportunity to contribute to conversations about workplace culture.
People with disabilities are special in the way that all of us are special. We each need unique accommodations in our own lives to allow us to feel supported, valued, and capable. Needing support to thrive doesn’t make anyone “differently abled” — it makes us human beings. While being responsible for the impact that your words have on others is admirable, it’s not a conversation that can happen in a bubble. The work can’t stop at calling out the language that ostracizes those outside of the norm. It's the very existence of the norm that needs to be challenged.