#15: What term should I use when talking about people who have disabilities?

Three bell peppers, one green, one yellow, one red

This week’s question is an amalgam of several different questions:

Dear Ally (Skills Teacher),

Can you tell me once and for all what the proper term is to use when talking about people who have disabilities? I see “people with disabilities,” “disabled people,” and “differently abled” most often. Whatever I pick, half the time someone pops up and tells me I’m using the wrong term. I don’t have a disability myself.

—Lost in Language

I hear your frustration! All you’re trying to do is be supportive and talk about the oppression facing disabled people, but no matter what term you use, someone is going to “correct” you eventually. When the language for a marginalized group is in flux, this is a common experience. The language around disabled people is definitely in flux right now, with a lot of people talking about the options and experimenting with new ideas. This comes back to a question we’ve addressed before: what do I do when members of a marginalized group disagree with each other?

My general advice for what to do in this situation is:

  • Do your research and understand what the different positions are
  • Make a personal decision based on your own values
  • When compatible with your values, respect the request of individual marginalized people
  • Correct others only when intervention is worthwhile

The rest of this column will go into more detail on each of these points.

My personal take: I say “disabled people”

I’ll say up front that I am a disabled person, and I personally prefer the term “disabled person,” I’ll tolerate “person with disabilities,” and I’ll actively correct people who say “differently abled.” If another disabled person asks me to use “person with disabilities” for them specifically, I’ll do that because I don’t disagree with it enough to override their personal preference. You may end up with a different opinion after reading the rest of this column and doing the recommended work.

Do your research

If members of a marginalized group are arguing about which term to use, find out why people are arguing for each option. For example, here is a summary of the top arguments for and against each proposed term for disabled people:

Term Arguments for Arguments against
Disabled people Acknowledges centrality of disability to a person’s identity, advocated mainly by disabled people Emphasizes disability over person, potentially reinforcing dehumanization of disabled people
People with disabilities Uses person-first language to emphasize humanity of person Frames disability as incidental or always unwanted
Differently abled Avoids passing judgment on disability Downplays the effect of disability on a person’s life, advocated mainly by non-disabled people

This table draws heavily from “The Geek’s Guide to Disability” by Annalee Flower Horne, which is worth reading carefully in its entirety.

Make a decision based on your values

Now that you’ve researched the question and listened to arguments from different marginalized people, spend some time to make a decision based on your values. While many values are shared between people with different opinions on the topic, it’s often the prioritization of those values relative to each other that results in different decisions. For example, I prioritize directly acknowledging how strongly my disability shapes my life and respecting the wishes of many disabled people over avoiding the possibility of reinforcing dehumanization of disabled people.

One point I’ve found useful, especially for groups I’m not part of, is to pay attention to which term members of that marginalized group prefer (the “self-advocates”), and which term is preferred by an advocacy group consisting mainly of people who aren’t part of the group. A good example of this is in the autism advocacy community, consisting of many different factions. Two of those factions are people who are on the autism spectrum who like being autistic and don’t want their autism removed, and neurotypical people who are parents of people on the autism spectrum and want their children to be “cured” of autism. Currently, the majority of self-advocates in the autism community appear to prefer the term “Autistic people,” so I use that instead of the term often preferred by neurotypical people, “people with autism.”

Respect the requests of individual people

I recommend respecting the request of any individual marginalized person to use a different term to refer to them specifically as long as it is minimally acceptable. It’s a little more work, but it’s about the same amount of work as remembering whether a person wants to be addressed by their title and last name (“Dr. Doe”) or their first name (“Jane”) or a nickname (“Jazzy J”).

Correct others only when intervention is worthwhile

Once you’ve done your research and picked a term, it’s not actually your job to correct everyone using a different term. In my case, I will generally interrupt and correct people every time I’m in a position to do so when people use a racial slur, but I’m unlikely to correct “person with disabilities,” and I’ll never ask someone else to capitalize “Autistic person.” My questions when making this decision include:

A sculpture in the shape of a question mark
CC BY-SA Alexander Henning Drachmann https://flic.kr/p/uUA4G
  • Who is being harmed and how much?
  • Who is listening?
  • What effect will letting this go have?
  • What is my relationship with this person?
  • What is their likely reaction?
  • What else could I spend this time and energy on?
  • Is this person a member of the group they are talking about?

In general, I do not “correct” members of marginalized groups using different terms for their own group. First, they may be engaged in reclaiming that word by using it in a context which creates positive associations with that word, the way that many LGBTQIA+ people have done with the word “queer.” Second, it’s rare that a system of oppression is significantly dependent on reinforcement by members of the group being marginalized. If you are not disabled, I don’t recommend correcting the term a disabled person uses when they are talking about disabled people, even if it is something that seems clearly derogatory to you (such as “cripple,” a word currently being reclaimed by some disabled people).

Ally skill: Focus on changing people with more privilege and power

When looking for opportunities to fight oppression, focus more on changing the actions of people with more privilege and power. For example, when a powerful person uses a racial slur against another group, it is important and effective to push back on that (if you can do so safely). When someone who is a member of a marginalized racial or ethnic group uses a slur against their own group, it is probably not a wise use of your time to push back on that if you aren’t part of that group yourself. Often, people who want to act as allies end up focusing on changing the behavior of less powerful and more marginalized people because it is easier and safer than confronting people with more power. Fight this tendency and focus your efforts on people with more privilege and power.

Featured image CC BY-SA by Luc Viatour

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