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Words matter: How to talk about people with different abilities

As society evolves, we are making adjustments to language in terms of what is deemed ethically correct when referencing a person or a people. The idea is for language to be inclusive, sensitive and respectful. The terms commonly used in referencing those with different abilities are outdated and not universally accepted, so it’s important to look further into the controversy.

The National Center on Disability and Language urges professional communicators to refer to a disability only when it is relevant to a story. And if a condition must be mentioned, the safest route to ensure the individual feels respected is to directly ask the source or their advocate how they would like to be described. It ultimately comes down to personal preference.

In most cases, when people use outdated and/or offensive vocabulary, they may not intend to offend. Regardless of intention, certain words hold a stigma that has the potential to negatively impact an entire demographic, which is why words matter. (Illustration by Hannah Hunter/Kokopelli)

According to Bloomberg, many people with different abilities prefer person-first language because it recognizes a human as a person first. An example of this would be to say, “a person who has autism” instead of “an autistic person.” Others prefer identity-first language, which “indicates their disability isn’t something to be ashamed of, but is, in fact, a part of who they are.” Both of these versions of language come from the Disability Rights Movement and are considered to be improvements over outdated vocabulary.

Euphemisms like handicapped, high/low functioning, physically challenged and disabled are discouraged because they focus on a person’s disabilities rather than their abilities.

NMSU’s Disability Access Services changed its name last year from Student Accessibility Services. The director of NMSU’s Disability Access Services, Aaron Salas, said that this decision was recommended by a professional consultant and was also voted upon by groups of NMSU students with different abilities. Colleges around the nation all have different names for these programs and should involve their own students in deciding what label fits best, since there is not a universal consensus.

Fellow Kokopelli reporter Arcelia Mendoza prefers person-first language because when people hear the name of the condition first and then the person, they tend to “devalue” the individual right away. As for words like “disability” or “handicapped,” Mendoza believes they may describe her physical condition, but are not all encompassing.“For me, the word ‘disability’ means to have a condition or group of conditions that make you do things differently than an average person. It’s part of my identity, but it does not define me,” Mendoza said.

 “I want to say that I don’t find the word ‘disability’ offensive, since I do use it in my own writing, but I personally feel that this word only describes what we cannot do rather than what we can do,” Mendoza added.

In most cases, when people use outdated and/or offensive vocabulary, they may not intend to offend. Regardless of intention, certain words hold a stigma that has the potential to negatively impact an entire demographic, which is why words matter.

In an article titled “Language Wars,” S.E. Smith and Anna Hamilton suggested there may be a down side to focusing too much on language correctness. “There are so many disability issues needing focus and action — among them housing access and insecurity, the employment gap, the poverty trap of government-provided disability benefits, police killings, media representation, and marriage inequality — that keeping conversations about disability focused on language correctness can take much-needed energy away from those issues.”

Nonetheless, many people are not familiar with more than one perspective, which is why the topic of language is newsworthy. Certain vocabulary can ascribe a false narrative or even nefarious intent. Spreading awareness and remaining conscious of the words we use is how we must navigate when referencing other humans.

The Associated Press Stylebook, a language guide for American journalists, acknowledges that the “correct” way to refer to those with different abilities varies from person to person, so the preferred option is to ask the individual directly how they want to be referenced. The AP Stylebook offers the following useful tips:

  • In general, do not describe an individual as having a disability unless it is clearly pertinent. If a description must be used, be specific about the type of disability or symptoms.
  • Avoid descriptions that connote pity, such as afflicted with, battling or suffers from or overcame their disability.
  • When possible, ask people how they prefer to be described.
  • Cripple: Considered offensive, do not use.
  • Disabled: A general term used for a physical, mental, developmental or intellectual disability.
  • Handicap: It should be avoided in describing a disability.

The National Center on Disability and Journalism is another great resource to reference. The NCDJ offers the following guidelines:

  • Abnormal/Abnormality: Avoid using such words to describe a person. Conversely, avoid describing people without disabilities as “normal” or “healthy.”
  • Afflicted with/stricken with/suffers from/victim of: Avoid these terms. Use neutral, factual language when describing a person with a disability.
  • Defect/Birth defect: Avoid using “defect” or “defective” when describing a disability. Instead, state the nature of the disability or injury.
  • High-functioning/low-functioning: Avoid these terms. These are not medical diagnoses and can be considered offensive. Instead, use medical diagnoses and describe an individual’s abilities and challenges.
  • Special/Special Needs: Use the term “functional needs” instead.
  • Able-bodied: Words and phrases like “non-disabled” and “does not have a disability” are more neutral choices.

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