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Words Matter: Making Language More Disability-Inclusive

Learning, unlearning, and empathising can take one a long way in the endeavour to become more sensitive to people with realities and contexts different from their own, explains Pritika Gupta

Pritika Gupta

6 April, 2023 | 4m read

What is the ‘right’ or rather respectful way of referring to someone who uses a wheelchair, who has trouble hearing, who noticeably faces difficulties in understanding information, and others who are chronically in pain or seem different in some manner?

Before we delve into the complications of disability language, let’s get some clarity on the terms we should never use in conversation. The words ‘cripple’ and ‘handicapped’ are often used to refer to persons with disabilities. However, they were rejected by people with disabilities and are considered derogatory. Similarly, terms such as ‘idiot’, ‘imbecile’, ‘moron’, and ‘retarded’ used for people with developmental or intellectual disabilities are profoundly discriminatory and reduce and discount the experiences and challenges people with such disabilities face.

Furthering this pejorative manifestation of our vocabulary is the casual use of the word ‘dumb’ to refer to people with speech impairments and learning disabilities. To top this off, the terms ‘crazy’, ‘nut’, ‘looney’, ‘insane’ and ‘stupid’ are used for people with mental illness or disability – you get the idea. 

One thing becomes clear from these examples. Most of these terms carried historical baggage and were socially and clinically accepted terminology to refer to disability-related concepts at some point in time. For instance, the term ‘lunatic’ was legally obtained in our country until the late 20th century; ‘mental retardation’ was the official term for intellectual disability until the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 was passed. Another thing then becomes certain – the politics of disability language is continually evolving.

How do we navigate these constant fluctuations? More importantly, why should we make an effort?

Because words hold power. They are inherently political. They can be used to provoke and oppress a community, to erase them, to make amends, to foster inclusion, and to romanticise their lived experiences. It is imperative to recognise the importance of the terms we use, not just to refer to persons with disabilities but also to represent them.

Critical disability theory, which started gaining prominence during the late decades of the 20th century, proposes that language carries with it ideological implications, which help shape the realities of persons with disabilities. Let’s see how this works. If we attach a negative connotation to specific terminology and then use it to refer to a particular group, the said group members tend to be associated with negative meanings. These people carry the weight of these labels, which defines their interactions with others and social life participation.

Similarly, how media and culture conceptualise disability shapes the attitude and perspective of the larger society. In mainstream discourses, the terms associated with disability and those with it are laden with layers of prejudice and stigma. While words like ‘dumb’, ‘idiot’ and ‘retarded’, among others, might seem harmless, they all discount the struggles of the disabled community for social justice, dignity, and equal human rights. They are all based on ableist grounds.

This warrants us to get acquainted with the concept of ableism, which is the bigotry and social prejudice against persons with disabilities based on the notion that being able-bodied is superior. The language based on such foundations disempowers persons with disabilities and builds a narrative of them being powerless, pitiful, and dependent objects. To begin the process of remedying the violence of language against people with disabilities, sensitivity towards the vocabulary is one of the preliminary steps, following an acceptance that persons with disabilities face oppression for being disabled.

Now, let’s complicate this a little further. The reclamation of some problematic terminologies by certain marginalised groups about themselves has been a contentious issue. In the context of disability, the most common example of this is the taking back of the word ‘cripple’ by sections of the disabled community and disability activists to refer to themselves – either ironically, or to redefine the word positively. Adding to this is the other side of the disabled community that has rejected the term. This confuses an able-bodied population that already struggles with the language of disability, about what’s right and what’s wrong.

At the start of this article, we noted ‘cripple’ as a word we should never use. With this added nuance of reclaiming derogatory language, it becomes crucial for able-bodied people to recognise their boundaries and not overstep them. Able-bodied people have long controlled the narrative of disability. Medical experts, researchers, and policymakers used their discretion to define the lives and experiences of persons with disabilities, deeming them incapable of talking about themselves.

Pop culture, like literature, represents persons with disabilities using various tropes that have done more harm than good; filmmakers usually turn to able-bodied actors to play people with disabilities, caricaturing what it means to live with a disability. So, persons with disabilities should have the power to name themselves. Reclaiming terminology from them would be an instance of appropriation and undermining of their identities and experiences. 

Even with the recycling of old vocabulary amidst the evolution of disability language, one thing is sure – with every subsequent change, we let go of the associated negative stereotypes a little more than before. While the historical injustices against persons with disabilities cannot be undone, the able-bodied can be their allies to help ensure a more just present and future for them.

It is an overwhelming task to say the right thing every time, especially when we can never be entirely right. An example is a debate regarding the use of person-first language (such as persons with disabilities) instead of identity-first language (like disabled people). While one group argues that having a disability should not define their identity, the other perceives disability to be an indispensable component of their identity that needs to be emphasised. To reach a consensus on the language of disability is extremely difficult, even within the disabled community.

But there’s good news. We do not need to shoulder the weight of the entire community at once. From the person-first versus identity-first debate, it becomes clear that different persons with disabilities prefer to be called by other names. This also highlights how the experience of disability varies for each individual, and the category of disability is not homogenous as mainstream discourse has made it to be. It is crucial to respect the preferences of persons with disabilities; always ask, don’t assume. Learning, unlearning, and empathising can take one a long way in the endeavour to become more sensitive to people with realities and contexts different from their own and to accept them, nurture them and treat them with regard and reverence.

In this journey, it is also useful to be aware of using language that, even if well-intended, can feel like a blatant attempt at adding a positive tinge to a disability, such as ‘specially-abled’. These terms glorify disability, can be condescending, and most importantly, are not usually put forth or encouraged by persons with disabilities. 

It all boils down to the impact of the words one uses, not the intent. Listening to what persons with disabilities have to say, reading what they have written, and acknowledging their struggles can help able-bodied people understand the terminology that is generally accepted and realise the weight language holds in the disability movement.

The rules and politics of disability language evolve with the changing place, self-understanding, needs, and desires of persons with disabilities. Fear, difference, and oblivion among the able-bodied reduce the possibility of potential collaborations with the disabled community, which are crucial for the emancipation of persons with disabilities. To this end, the road ahead is one of inclusion, education, and sensitivity.

(Pritika Gupta is an Assistant Manager at the Office of Learning Support, Ashoka University.)

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