Our language evolves with increased awareness and sensitivity to the impact that words can have on attitudes and the impact of the media on our self-esteem. The language of disability has evolved in relation to the awareness we have that individuals who have disabilities are as equal contributors and partners in our society as anyone without a disability. Some individuals are born with a disability, others acquire a disability in accidents or work or war or other trauma. Some disabilities come just because we are living longer and growing older than previous generations. Whatever the case, we want to be treated and referred to with dignity.
Avoid using the word “handicapped”. It refers to the sad stereotype of a person who had no other means of support than to take off his hat or cap and beg – cap in hand became handicapped. Thankfully, we no longer have to live or subsist that way, and social security disability and other types of social services support mean that a person who cannot work does not have to beg to survive.
Avoid putting the word “the” before the term for the disability: the blind, the deaf, the crippled, the disabled. Categorizing individuals and putting them into subgroups takes away the individuality and the dignity of the person who is blind, the person who is deaf or hard of hearing, etc.
Put the accent on the person first:
The person who is blind (or visually impaired, if the person has some sight)
The person who is deaf (or hard of hearing, if the person has some hearing)
The person who uses a cane, or a wheelchair, or a scooter, or crutches, or who has a mobility impairment (note that the person uses the item, which carries a sense of activity.)
Student with a disability – not disabled student
Girl who cannot speak or is mute (not girl who is dumb)
Do not refrain from using sensory verbs with someone who does not see or hear. Often they will say them, and mean them as “perceive” or “understand”.
A person who has a muscular or neurological or medical condition which has caused the disability can be used as description: a person who has muscular dystrophy, a person who has had a stroke, an individual with epilepsy.
Avoid using “victim” or “sufferer “ – it presumes the person is in agony or perpetually helpless.