Some well-intended disability-related terms are offensive. Laura McKee highlights the ten behaviours and phrases she hates most and explains why.
Four letter word just to get me along
It's a difficulty, and I'm bitin' on my tongue
And I, I keep stallin' and keepin' it together
People around gotta find somethin' to say now…
(That’s Not My Name, The Ting Tings, 2008.)
Today, there are enough phrases meaning "disabled people" to fill an entire dictionary. Some are derogatory, and some - I'm sure – are an attempt to be kind. But if you are a non-disabled person, I urge you to assess your language, behaviours, and assumptions about those with disabilities.
That’s Not My Name, a song by the Ting-Tings (referenced in the headline and above), feels appropriate when people refer to me using offensive terms.
However, in this article, the "four-letter word" is "hate." It's not a word I use often. But, as a proud disabled woman, I will use it in this piece as an opportunity to bite back.
Today, I will share my top ten bugbears on this subject. I'll even explain why some ableist behaviours are such a no-no.
Drawing attention to us isn’t always the “favour” you think it is
Shouting that people with disabilities need special treatment, labels, attitudes, etc., isn't championing inclusivity. It actually contributes to harmful stereotypes about visible and invisible disabilities.
This is evident with the "cutesy" terms people without disabilities come up with and use when uncomfortable talking to and about people with disabilities.
We all want to choose how we are "labelled," be that with gender, sexuality, race, etc. Likewise, some of us do not want to be labelled at all.
Every person with disabilities has their own "list of worst terms" from the Ableist Word Bank. Some are minor irritations, but others really make us squirm.
The following list is from my perspective, and I'm speaking for myself. I may have missed terms that bother others, or I may focus on some that others find inoffensive.
But this is my list:
1. “Differently abled” or “diffabled”
This one makes my head thump. It's saying there's such a thing as "normal" with what the human body can do.
No two bodies can do the same. Everyone is "differently abled."
The made-up word version, "diffabled," would be comical if not so insulting. The prejudice seeps out of this one like a toxic gas. No wonder it makes my headache worse!
This refers to a person who suffers some form of injury. Whichever way a person becomes physically disabled, they do not continue to be victims!
To me, this has connotations of sacrificial lambs - as if we have been chosen to "suffer" so others don't have to. Yuck!
3. “Physically challenged”
This "respectful" term was probably invented by someone who'd never been in contact with a disabled person.
Of course, I face challenges as a disabled woman, but that doesn’t define who I am.
What more can I say here apart from don't?
In golf, "handicap" is the term used to measure how much better one person's ability is than another's.
This was a common way to describe disabled people in the 1900s. We were "disadvantaged" compared to other, better players in the game of life. There was a call for change in the 1970s, and the term was replaced with "disabled."
If you still use this word, you're essentially saying you're better than me.
Hmm... It may be time you read the room.
This phrase is the casualty of political correctness gone wild.
I am as capable as you are.
Yes, I have to do things my way, but we all have limitations.
Worst of all, this term is so patronising. I understand the whole "spin the negative into a positive" angle, but this is not the way. Editing my experiences for your benefit does nothing but suit you.
6. “An inspiration”
This may be a puzzling addition, but it really gets on my nerves.
It doesn't sink in for some people when I say I don't like being described this way.
Don't think I'm heroic because I write about my condition to raise awareness. I'm helping others by sharing my experience, not risking life and limb.
Please stop using this word and promoting the "superhuman" stereotype. I'm different from you, and I don't need you to hail that as either positive or negative. Some things just are.
7. “Special needs”
When I left teaching in 2014, this term was replaced with "inclusion."
I worked with "Special Educational Needs" coordinators and groups of children for years. Why did I never see how wrong this was?
Everyone has needs. Why are mine so special? Is it because mine are not always met?
But even that argument falls apart. Every person in this world does not have all their needs catered for.
Or if they do, I want to know their address!
I don't hate this term as much as the others, but I'm also not a fan. Being labelled as "suffering from Idiopathic Intracranial Hypertension (IIH) and migraine" seems so hopeless.
9. "The disabled”
This is a HUGE no-no. "The disabled" what? "Disabled person" or "disabled people" are okay by me, but "the disabled" as a label strips me of any other identity. That includes the very basic one of being a human being.
Imagine pointing someone in my direction, but instead of saying, "See the woman over there," you say, "See the woman in the wheelchair." That’s dehumanising because you reduce people to a single feature.
First things first, I'm not. I'm an ambulatory wheelchair user, which means I can walk a few steps and potter around the house on my better days. But I need a wheelchair or mobility scooter to go more than the length of a bus.
If someone has a physical disability, you should say they're a "wheelchair user" or that they have a "physical disability." I am still disabled whether I'm in my wheelchair or not, so it's okay to say that. Disabled is not a bad word!
"Unintentionally offensive" language and actions occur when a group decides what another group will and won’t find offensive without asking the group in question.
This makes the whole political correctness thing - something supposed to protect us - stink of ableist privilege.
Most people use everyday words without considering their ableist connotations. Elizabeth Wright, a Disability Activist and Paralympic Medallist, says terms like "differently abled" are created by non-disabled people in an ableist society. She says:
“Ableists may think they are being positive and uplifting for disabled people, but in essence, it is a mask, a covering up of their uncomfortable feelings about disability."
Language like "handi-capable" is infantilising. If you don't want to patronise us, think about the words you say, don't talk down to us.
If you need help with what language to use, ask the person rather than ignore them. And, if in doubt, using the person's name will never be wrong.
And just like that, you're an expert on how to be respectful to people with physical disabilities.
Everyone could do more reading and education about the subject. But at the end of the day, all you need to do is treat the person as a person! Ask, don't assume, learn, and help society grow.
One day, perhaps the "Us and Them" attitude will become simply "Us."
NPS-IE-NP-00642 February 2023