Disability Language and Navigating Its Nuances


The article talks about how people talk about disabilities and why it's important to be careful with our words. It explains that some words might hurt or upset people with disabilities, even if we don't mean to. The article contains stories and examples to show how language can affect people differently. It's better to educate people kindly when they use the wrong words instead of getting angry. Disability language is always changing, so we need to be understanding and considerate in conversations about disabilities.

Trigger warning: Disability language

I know … I know … Many folks are tired of political correctness. This includes knowing which words or phrases to use without offending someone. Disability language is a tricky thing.
First, when it comes to disability language, there are two sides.

One applies to disabled people and their allies. They may come across what they think are not the right disability words or phrases to use. Sometimes, the ally can be wrong.

When an ally catches someone saying what they believe is wrong, they flame them. Whether the person is wrong or right doesn’t matter. Flaming, blaming, and shaming don’t help.

The other side is the general population. Often, the person doesn’t know what they don’t know. They may not be disabled or have close friends and family who identify as disabled. They don’t think about disabilities every day like many disability allies do. Or perhaps, their disabled friend or family member self-identifies with an unpopular term.

See, Hear, Walk, Stand, and Other Words

People ask if they can use words like see, hear, listen, walk, hands, and so on. I’ve had conversations with people with different disabilities. We all say it’s OK to use them and use it ourselves.

Though I’m profoundly deaf, I listen. Just not with my ears. I use a combination of lipreading and the bionic ear. If I close my eyes, I won’t have a clue what someone says. The bionic ear aka cochlear implant helps me with lip-guessing.

I say lip-guessing because that’s what I’m doing. Many words and sounds look the same on the lips. My brain looks for clues based on the topic of discussion and the sentence. Mom, pop, bop, mop, bomb, mob, and Bob all look the same on the lips. My bionic ear helps me distinguish “Mmm” from “buh” and “puh.”

Anyway, I use “listen” and “hear” all the time. For example, “listen to your body” doesn’t mean the physical act of using your ears to listen to your body.

“Listen” means more than biomechanics of hearing with the ears. It means to pay attention. Synonyms include observe, be attentive, give attention to, hang on words, and take notice. I listen.

I’ve said, “I heard you the first time.” It means I caught what you said.

In many of my written posts, I’ll say, “I’d like to hear from y’all!” This is a sound-less conversation. The conversation that happens here will be in the comments … silent. Yet, it’s perfectly acceptable to use it.

Of course, not everyone physically talks with their mouths. If someone uses American Sign Language (ASL), can we say they’re speaking or talking? The speaker signs. The person is signing. The speaker uses sign language.

Is “walk the talk” OK? Often, I’ll say “Walk or roll the talk.” Some say to replace “standing meeting” with “daily meeting” (weekly, monthly, whatever). Some say to replace “all-hands meeting” with “company-wide” or “department-wide meeting.”

Triggering Words

Some people with disabilities despise certain words to the point that they can trigger them or evoke emotions. Yet, some disabled folks use these terms because they prefer it.

The original release of one of Lizzo’s songs had a slur. It caused people to call out Lizzo for ableism. A lot of people didn’t know the slur was ableist, including people with disabilities.

Hence, many don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t know what words are offensive, triggering, or wrong to use.

Special needs

“Special needs” makes a lot of disabled people cringe. Here are two reasons why it won’t go away anytime soon. One reason is the use of “special education.” The phrase appears in U.S. law under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Because of this, people widely reference “special needs” when it comes to children and in education.

The other is that some caregivers don’t think their child has a disability. We don’t know what they are going through. They’re tired, overwhelmed, worried, and feeling many other things. The last thing they need is schooling on “special needs.”

They may be looking for help with their kid. It could be a program, a school, and whatnot. What do they do? They search for “special needs” when looking for resources.

One time a parent said her kid had Asperger’s. In a nice and educational way, I let her know that the term has fallen out of favor in recent years. She replied that she will continue to use it. Her kid is a minor. Perhaps, when they’re older, they’ll change how they want to self-identify.

So, what’s wrong with “special needs”? Why do many disabled folks find it offensive? There have been many articles on this topic like the one from Rebecca Cokley.

Short version: Folks with disabilities have the same basic human needs. They’re not special needs.

For example, I’m a deaf lipreader. I need people to face me so I can read their lips. I don’t have special needs. Well, except for my daily morning cup of coffee and the occasional chocolate peanut butter treat. We all have needs, not “special” needs.

In my post on what to say instead of special needs, the consensus is to replace it with the correct terms: Disabled and disabilities. They are not bad words. Lawrence Carter-Long started a #SayTheWord campaign.

Disability Euphemisms

Not only are disability and disabled not bad words but also they don’t need euphemisms. The last thing we want to do is to scare people away from saying these.

A few years after making a video, I rewatched and cringed. I said, “different abilities or diffability.” I wasn’t avoiding the word “disabled.” I thought it expanded the language. However, many view it as a euphemism for disabilities.

A helpful resource is the Disability Language Style Guide from the National Center on Disability and Journalism at Arizona State University.

Like everything in the world of disabilities, there are always a few people who disagree. There are no clear-cut answers in the terms to use. A few proposed terms like “different ability.” Some of the commenters didn’t like that either because it’s a euphemism for disabilities.

So, what conclusion can we come to based on the discussion? Only one. Respect each other’s preferences and use of language.

In other words, if you disagree with someone’s use of disability-related language, educate … don’t berate. They may not be aware of it. Or it’s a person’s preference.

For example, I’ve been blasted for referring to someone by their preferred term. The ally assumed instead of asking. I’ve seen people who self-identify in public with unpopular terms be chided by a disabled person for using that term. Now I say, “Someone who identifies as [fill in with unpopular term].”


The H word is one of those that can cause a strong reaction. But why?

I know the reason why I used to despise it. And it turned out to be a myth. Before the Internet existed, I learned handicapped came from “hand in cap,” which meant a disabled beggar.

But this is a myth that spread before internet memes existed. Jeremy Andrew Davis and Snopes do a good job of explaining its etymology.

Nonetheless, I think “accessible parking” and “accessible bathrooms” work well as they identify what the parking space and bathroom are. They don’t refer to anyone.

Disability language is ever-evolving. People with disabilities don’t always use the terms others think should be used. Rather than chiding or attacking someone for the term, ask them about it and educate them. Civil works better than anger.

I caught Ahren Belisle, a comedian who appeared on America’s Got Talent. He shared that he has cerebral palsy. Ahren said he used handicapped in his social media bio.

Someone messaged him telling him that he needed to change handicapped to “disabled.” She explained that you can’t say the handicapped anymore and it’s offensive to disabled people.

Ahren went on to say he’s disabled himself and he didn’t think it was offensive. The woman responded that he doesn’t get to decide what’s offensive or not to disabled people.

I thought he did an amazing job with humor in educating us on two things:

  • Disabled individuals can choose the words they want to use.
  • Disabled is not a bad word.

It’s true that many disabled people don’t like the word handicapped. However, as I learned from the discussion on “special needs,” there is always at least one person who prefers a term many don’t like. Disabled people have the right to use the terms they prefer.

When You Make a Mistake

I don’t just talk about inclusion. I work to live it and show it through actions. But I slip up from time to time. When I do, I’m hard on myself. It takes me a long time to get over it. Fortunately, no one jumped on me when these happened.

The first one occurred at the airport. I was in front of the bathroom line. A door opened and I was about to enter when I noticed it was an accessible bathroom. There was no sign on the door. Usually, they’re in the back of the bathroom. This was the front.

“Oops. This is the handicapped bathroom,” I muttered to myself. No one heard, but that’s not the point.

Right away, I caught my mistake. I questioned myself trying to figure out why I said that when I didn’t like it. I trained myself to say accessible bathroom, accessible parking, etc. I don’t have an answer. It wasn’t unconscious bias.

The second one was on a LinkedIn Live audio with Catarina Rivera. I was talking about the progress over perfection approach. I said it makes accessibility less daunting and prevents [gulps] “analysis paralysis.”

After I finished talking, Catarina asked me to confirm that’s what I said. As soon as I finished answering, I realized my mistake and that I should have skipped that phrase.

I appreciated she verified what I said. Then, she explained the problem with that phrase in a calm and educational way. (Very progress over perfection attitude.) The easiest way to explain is that inclusive language avoids using any disability-related terms in a phrase not related to a disability.

These incidents stick with me, and I hope they never happen again. It goes to show the biggest allies can mess up. And the best way to respond to mistakes is to educate, not berate.

Allies Can Make Mistakes with Disability Language

Disability language is complicated! Even people with disabilities and their supporters make mistakes with disability language. They may think something is wrong when it’s not as two scenarios in the next section will show you.

It’s like people who scold someone for parking in accessible parking. They think they’re helping the disability community by chiding anyone who doesn’t fit their definition of someone who has an accessible parking pass. That person has an accessible parking pass for a reason.

Accessible parking passes are not easy to get. Disabled people have told me they’re struggling to get one.

Back to language. A hot button these days is the use of “high functioning” or “low functioning” when it comes to autism. It’s now seen as offensive and isn’t used anymore. Yet, some who identify as such will use that term. They’ve most likely received the diagnosis before the change.

The first thing to do is respect the person’s preference. If you’re not talking about a specific person, then follow the general terms. Avoid assumptions and ask. Educate. Don’t berate.

How to Respond to Disability Language Use

How do people respond when they think someone uses disability language incorrectly? Remember, even disabled people and allies aren’t always right.

A little background. When referring to general hearing disabilities, the terms to use are deaf and hard of hearing. “Hearing impaired” has fallen out of favor, however, some folks identify themselves as such.

Just to show you not everything is black and white. I’ve met someone with two cochlear implants who doesn’t identify as deaf or hearing.

Scenario 1

A friend who identifies as hearing impaired used the term. A deaf person went on a tirade flaming my friend.

A bystander said they work with people who refer to themselves as hearing impaired. They also said my friend was advocating for the deaf community. “I would gently suggest that you not attack someone who is actually on your side,” they said.

The person continued with their tirade. What’s interesting is the person pointed to the National Association of the Deaf’s FAQ about community and culture. They quoted the article including the very last line: “When in doubt, ask the individual how they identify themselves.”

Scenario 2

Someone mentioned “hearing impaired” in a comment. It was not self-identification.

Another person replied nicely with an explanation and suggested not using the term. The original commenter edited the comment to fix it.

Which would you say lives the progress over perfection motto?

As a bystander, it was painful to read the Scenario 1 conversation. The berating caused everyone to feel awful. People may have lost respect for the angry person. It’s possible the angry person’s comments could negatively affect the deaf and hard of hearing community.

This attitude can cause division within the disability community. We have enough division within our community. We need to support each other.

The second scenario involved a simple explanation. The person fixed it. The end.

Disability language continuously evolves. Today, I would not use the terms I’ve used in the past. Still, I occasionally blunder and apologize.

Though “handicapped” no longer causes me to recoil, I don’t use it. Many still dislike it and I avoid using it out of respect for them.

Be Kind

Educate first. I know I learn more and make a change when people educate instead of berating. Do you?

Take the progress over perfection approach. Don’t attack anyone’s use of words. Instead, educate them and have a conversation. Avoid making assumptions. Most of all, be kind.

At my first diversity advisory committee meeting, the chair said that we have “abilities” represented. I spoke up. “Disabilities and disabled are not bad words,” I said nicely. He thanked me for teaching him. We’re learning from each other.

When folks say things like “abilities” and “different abilities,” they think they’re being respectful. They may not be comfortable with “disabilities” and “disabled” yet.

When we tread carefully for so long, it makes it hard to get comfortable saying certain words. It takes education and practice to make change.

In their speeches, two people mentioned referred to me as hearing-impaired. I didn’t correct them. The speech was done. I educated them privately. I’m not going to feel offended when people say hearing-impaired instead of deaf or hard of hearing. I see it as an educational opportunity.

During a podcast, the host referred to me as hearing-impaired. I was focused on listening and responding that I didn’t tell her to use deaf and hard of hearing. Afterward, I sent her an email. I let her know I wasn’t upset at all. I warned her some may be sensitive about it and that it’s better to ask the person about their preference. She thanked me and fixed it in the recording.

This is why I push for progress over perfection when it comes to disabilities and accessibility. People just don’t know. And they’re rarely going to remember it the first time they learn it. While studying for an accessibility certification exam, I got frustrated that some concepts would not sink in. I wanted to know and remember these concepts.

Most folks don’t think about these things every day. Folks are more receptive to kind feedback. It’s the ol’ you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

Do your best. Ask people what they prefer. If it’s a general audience, such as a blog post or article, then you go based on the style guide. If there’s no style guide, then err on the side of person-first like “a person who is deaf.” Identity-first uses “a deaf person.”

Many people with disabilities prefer identity-first over person-first language. It’s no longer a rule to always default to person-first language. But of course, that may change tomorrow.

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Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

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