Revealing Words


Historically there have been many different ways of talking about disability and the people who experience it.

Understanding about disability varies, even amongst disabled people and disability-focused organisations. There’s not even clear agreement about what to call us.

However if you’re writing about disabled people, using any of these words suggests you’re making disabling assumptions that aren’t helping:

  • suffer, struggle
  • bound, confined
  • lets
  • despite
  • overcome
  • inspiring
  • brave
  • special

If you find yourself using any of these, ask how you’re picturing the person and their place in the situation:

  • Are you imagining how you might feel if you became them right now, without other parts of your life adjusting?
  • Is the person’s value solely in terms of what they teach others about ourselves?
  • Are they a helpless victim to you? Or are they a noble exception to that, due to their ‘pluck’?
  • How will other disabled people respond to reading your description?
  • Do you really need to delve into medical details or describe how someone became disabled? Is that actually relevant to your story? It might be interesting to reflect on your motivation or what you’ve been taught to ask.

Some specific outdated words are simply unacceptable in any circumstances except a list of words to avoid, eg: handicapped, cripple, spastic, retard. You get the picture.

What other words or phrases have you noticed are red flags?

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Rachel Cunliffe
Rachel Cunliffe

I would add 'struggle' - assuming life is a constant struggle from an outside perspective may not reflect the feelings/perspective and experience of the individual.

sachadylan moderator

As Jonathan Mosen notes, ".. making people so nervous about using the wrong term regarding disability [means] that communication may be stifled. Only if communication is open and straightforward can we hope to overcome misconceptions that hold us back."

Most disabled people pay far more attention to what you *do* than what you say.