Disability Language Guide
Language matters when we talk and write about disability. The words and language we use shape the way we, and others, perceive disability and the world.
Because ableism is so deeply embedded in our society, many still unintentionally use harmful, hurtful and disrespectful words and language to talk about disability and refer to persons with disabilities. Ableist language is also used in contexts that are unrelated to disability.
This happens mostly because people are not yet aware of, or fully understand, ableism and ableist language. However, there are also those who deliberately and intentionally use ableist language to harm and oppress others.
It is hard to avoid using ableist language when it is so ingrained in our society’s language and mindset. It can be hard to remember to use alternative words.
However, more importantly, we need to remember that this is an ongoing process, just as unlearning ableism and being an ally to persons with disabilities are ongoing processes that we need to keep on doing.
The point is to keep on practising, because practice makes permanent.
Although changing the language we use does not mean that a person is no longer an ableist, it can help us to be aware of how pervasive ableism is, and the impact of ableism on the whole of society, not just persons with disabilities.
Disability or differently-abled?
In Malaysian media, social media and conversations, we sometimes read and hear the words “differently-abled” or “kelainan upaya” used to refer to disability and persons with disabilities.
This is, however, incorrect.
Firstly, disability is not a bad word. The disability community uses the words “disability” and “disabled” because they are correct terms and not offensive.
Secondly, the official term used in the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008 (Akta Orang Kurang Upaya 2008) are:
- persons with disabilities
- orang kurang upaya (BM)
Euphemisms such as “differently-abled”, “diffability”, handicapable” and “special needs” are confusing and lack clarity. Every person, regardless if they are disabled or not, have different abilities to do different things and different needs, not just individually, but at different times of the day, season, and at different stages of life.
Euphemism is defined as a word or phrase used as substitute to avoid saying an unpleasant or offensive word.
The terms “differently-abled” and “special needs” also imply that there is a “normal” or “correct” way of being and doing things, further reinforcing negative understandings of disability.
“Differently-abled” minimises the lived experience of persons with disabilities having to navigate a world that is not built for them. It implies that the problem lies with persons with disabilities, instead of recognising that systemic, attitudinal and environmental barriers significantly impact the quality of life of persons with disabilities and their full participation in society.
Many persons without disabilities use euphemisms in an attempt to be more respectful towards persons with disabilities, or to distance from the stigma associated with disability. However, they do not realise the hidden ableism behind the euphemisms. It also reflects their discomfort around disability.
Person with a disability or disabled person?
Many governments and international organisations such as the United Nations use person-first language, i.e. “persons with disabilities” and “person with a disability”, as the official terminology to refer to persons with disabilities.
Many disability activists do not mind using either terms. However, increasingly, there are many who prefer to be referred to as “disabled person” (identity-first language) instead of “person with a disability” because they consider disability a central part of their identity.
“Persons with disabilities” and “person with a disability” is primarily used in Malaysia.
However, it is important to remember that different persons have different preferences regarding how they prefer to be referred to. We can find out people’s preference by noticing how people refer to themselves when they are talking or in their writing. Another way we could do that is asking them when the conversation arises. And then use the words they prefer, without correcting them.
In general, avoid using “the disabled” as it is considered as objectifying persons with disabilities.
For more discussion and resources on this, please refer to the page Identity-first vs Person-first Language.
Neurodiverse or neurodivergent person?
Increasingly, more people are becoming more aware of the neurodiversity movement, and are starting to use the language of neurodiversity.
image source: Sonny Jane Wise, Lived Experience Educator
However, it is very common to find many people mistakenly use “neurodiverse individual” when the correct term is “neurodivergent individual”.
The error is not only grammatical. Using “neurodiverse individual” to describe persons whose neurotype differs from the neurotypical majority also creates an “Us vs Them” boundary. When in fact neurotypical and neurodivergent persons are included in the spectrum of human neurodiversity.
We strongly recommend reading Dr Nick Walker’s essay “Neurodiversity: Some Basic Terms and Definitions” in which she explains in depth the meaning and proper usage of key neurodiversity-related terms, including neurodivergent, neurotypical, neurodiverse and neurominority.
Disability Language Guidelines
Using Respectful And Appropriate Disability Language by Malaysian Disability Community
Here Are Some Dos And Don’ts Of Disability Language by Andrew Pulrang
How to talk about disability sensitively and avoid ableist tropes by Shruti Rajkumar in NPR
Disability Language Style Guide by National Center on Disability and Journalism
What Do I Say? A guide to language about disability by People With Disability Australia
Disability-Inclusive Communications Guidelines by United Nations
Tips for Journalists by whatisableism.tumblr.com
4 Disability Euphemisms That Need to Bite the Dust by Emily Ladau in Center for Disability Rights
Don’t Call Disabled People ‘Differently Abled’ by Carly Fox
Not Special Needs (2-minute video) by CoorDown, Italy
Person-first vs Identity-first Language
Should I say ‘disabled person’ or ‘person with a disability’? by Mary Ann McColl in The Conversation
It’s Perfectly OK To Call A Disabled Person ‘Disabled,’ And Here’s Why by Brittany Wong in HuffPost
Neurodiversity: Some Basic Terms and Definitions by Nick Walker
Neurodiverse or Neurodivergent? It’s more than just grammar by Sue Fletcher-Watson