Worried about saying the wrong thing? Accidentally offending someone? You’re not alone. The problem is that we can avoid the subject of disability altogether rather than risk using inappropriate terminology.
The most important thing is intention. Intending to be supportive and accidentally using the wrong word is more likely to be forgiven if the positive intention is obvious. And the easy way out is to say you’re not sure of the correct terminology, and ask the person you are speaking to.
The obvious caveat is that if someone tells you the terminology they feel uncomfortable with, and you continue to use it anyway – your intention is clearly to offend. So listen to what others’ preference is (and it might change from individual to individual).
The thorniest issue is often whether to use ‘disabled people’ or ‘people with disabilities’. In the UK we tend to use social model terminology – ‘disabled people’ – as people are disabled by inaccessible environments rather than by their condition. In many other countries they use person-first terminology – ‘people with disabilities’. In some places they use other terms, such as ‘differently-abled’ or ‘people with determination’. In general, I use ‘disabled people’ most of the time, and if I’m talking to an International audience I’ll explain the social model and interchange ‘disabled people’ and ‘people with disabilities’. Whilst language is important, actions are even more important.
There are some basic principles to remember, which you may find useful.
Avoid using victim language – ‘suffers from …’ ‘crippled by …’ ‘afflicted with …’
Replace with non-judgemental language – ‘has …’ ‘lives with …’
Avoid ‘wheelchair-bound’. Unless the person is into bondage (!), this makes the wheelchair sound like a constriction, whereas it is actually an enabler.
Replace with ‘wheelchair-user’
Avoid ‘disclose’ or ‘declare’ when taking about disability. It makes it sound like a guilty admission of something shameful
Replace with ‘mention’, ‘talk about’, ‘be open with’
Also, don’t worry about saying ‘I’ll see you next week’ to a blind person, or ‘I’ll wait to hear from you’ to a Deaf or deaf person*, or ‘shall we go for a walk?’ to a wheelchair-user. These are everyday expressions.
*Deaf (with a capital D) tends to refer to people who are born profoundly deaf and whose first language is sign language. deaf (with a small d) tends to refer to people who have become deafened, and who lip read.
But the most important thing is not to let worry about saying the wrong thing prevent you from taking about disability; intention and action are more important, and you can always ask if you’re not sure.