Reflections on disability language

Disability language shouldn’t really be that complicated. But it is, and all the terms keep evolving and changing all the time. What was a PC and preferable way to describe something twenty or thirty years ago isn’t that any more. Some terms are still very confusing, and in other languages some are fine and their equivalents in other languages aren’t. And then there is the careless use that should be curbed.

Another can of worms. And sometimes the more polite people try to be in describing someone, often the more rude and thoughtless it feels. But let’s try to keep this simple.

There are deaf people, and those with a capitol D, Deaf – meaning they are culturally and proudly Deaf. Most of which might use sign language. Then there is the regular deaf, who might or might not use sign language, or cochlear implants, or hearing aids, or lip reading, or none. Then there are those can hear something; their preferred term is hard of hearing. “Hearing impaired” is these days considered rude or offensive (“impaired”).

Then we have blind and visually impaired people. Visually impaired is considered more inclusive than blind, covering the various forms of lack of sight and legal blindness of many kind. Cataracts, glaucoma (when those affect sight), tunnel vision, retinal issues, CVI etc etc. But how is it that “hearing impaired” is offensive and “visually impaired” is inclusive? Makes no sense to me. But I’ve also heard “unsighted” recently (in which case… why not just call the rest of people nonblind while you’re at it). And a friend was asked if she was “a person with blindness”. Quit with the meaningless emphenisms please. And the sight terms continue, as there are other terms in other countries: registered blind, partially sighted, low vision, a visual impairment… What do those who aren’t familiar with the disability world think when they hear someone has a low vision or is partially sighted? All of those seem to always require some further details if it means needing any accommodations.

Deafblind should be pretty clear, right? Someone with no sight and no hearing whatsover. Right? But some have some sight, some some hearing, some both, some none. Some use glasses and hearing aids or implants, and can maybe even see if the pedestrian light is green. And most don’t look blind, or sound deaf. So apart of a red-white cane, how else can you recognize them? Good question…

I’m not fully familiar with mobility language, but “wheelchair bound” has to get out of common usage. Wheelchair user sounds better. The chair can bring independence and mobility, not be something that crips you. And of course not everyone with a mobility impairment uses a wheelchair. Cue canes, braces, walkers, or just trying to walk hiding one’s pain. Plus there are so many reasons why someone might be in a wheelchair or have mobility issues – not the matter of the random strangers why someone uses one. But as there’s everything from having multiple sclerosis to car accidents and cerebral palsy (with no effects in intellect) to those with multiple disabilities (mix and match – often making communications or even guessing one’s intellectual levels difficult especially is deafness and/or inability to talk are any part of the mix) it can be hard to figure the correct terms. Is “wheelchair user” ok? Until at least you know more about someone? (such as maybe if there are any other issues you might need to be aware of to give better service). Of course, with the usual exclusions – if mentioning something about a person and their disabilities are irrelevant to what is being discussed, leave it out. If you know the name, use that. (“Bob” will do)

Then there are the not so visible impairments – another huge minefield. As most of the time the disabilities aren’t so obvious (unless the person with some invisible kind also has a visible one, needing to use a cane or a wheelchair or service dog etc), how would you call ..? Often whatever you might not even know the name of. In this field we have all the neurological, psychological, emotional, “behavioral”, and many varieties of physical pain that don’t need the use of a walker or a wheelchair. Can you tell if someone is autistic just by looking at them or hearing them speak? Sorry to break it to you but no you can’t. Doctors and psychiatrists constantly misdiagnose and mistreat autistic persons who are female, just read anything by ASAN (autistic women’s network) here in wordpress or in twitter. Autistic persons who have female parts get regular misdiagnoses for mental illnesses typical to those expressed in women in western cultures, such as depression or misdiagnosed eating disorders. Which many of these autistics don’t have, OR at least it is not what the actual issue is. And then those apparently well meaning people such as AutismMoms (read: “mothers with autism” since they insist on PFL, or “mothers with autism of their offspring”) who insist on PFL… riiiight. So you, nonautistic people, aka people without autism, insist that the autistic people should describe ourselves in terms you want? “person first” like “woman with autism”, “has autism” etc? How about no. Ask the person how they want to be described. I am an autistic person; it is part of my identity – there is no “with” or “has” in it. Unlike most people in your neurotypical world, my short description of self does not include e.g. my “gender” (read: assigned sex at birth, or a long figuring it out as what it means for one’s mind). So the gender part is an add-on, mutable, fluid. So in PFL it would be better as “autistic person with femaleness” or “who suffers from femaleness”. (I don’t suffer from autism. But femaleness, yes. It causes one’s body to have to perform a lot of undesirable things). Add the same PFL/description issues to ALL the invisible kind of disabilities, illnesses, features other than the default for age- and gender-typical person in the culture where they reside.

So with the invisible minefield, how are you supposed to describe someone? Make your best effort. Just don’t use the words like “bound” or “suffers from” unless the person in question has literally used the words “suffer from” in those exact words, when talking to you personally, about their issue or issues. Also, mention the issues only if they are relevant. Is it relevant that “cancer mum” runs a marathon? Or “special needs” children go to a prom? This can easily slip to the inspiration porn category, so if something is not newsworthy or worth even mentioning without highlighting the disability part, then don’t mention it. “Woman runs marathon”. “Children go to prom”. “Famous musician plays music besides their diagnosis of mental illnesses”. “Actress hides her age related macular degeneration and keeps working as an actress”. Sort of “people with and without disabilities try to enjoy their life, work, and family like the rest of us”.

On the top of the list of weirdest ways to describe a disability I’ve heard (or been told hearing by friends) so far, with decreasing weirdness, with some aspieness in nitpicking the terminology:

  • multi-impaired (I guess that’s ok, but does it mean the same or different than multiple disabilities?)
  • unsighted (what, you mean as in a person who is nonblind, while you’re at it?)
  • person with blindness (just use word blind, please. Your PFL attempts hurt ears)
  • differently abled (lots of disabled people hate this term. May I suggest “typically abled”, then specifying whether the typicalness refers to a specific sensory, cognitive, neurological etc ability or style?_
  • person with/who has autism (read above, you person without autism)
  • special needs (as opposed to… regular needs? Parents with regular needs children. See how wrong that sounds?)

Identity first language, always. So ask the person. Use what they prefer.

How do you want to be described in this context?

One of the pleasurable side effects of doing stuff with accessibility is that people in the field aren’t afraid to describe themselves in ways that make sense to the others around them, even if the descriptions might sound funny or weird. In the “regular world” few people would think of mentioning they wear glasses or mild hearing aids, but in the accessibility world those can be good descriptions, showing you know something of those fields. Like what it means to not hear properly, even if you don’t notice it enough to make it any part of your identity that you wear the aids.


One thought on “Reflections on disability language”

  1. Sandy and I have done a demonstration (this works especially well with kids) about my wheelchair. She takes a bit of rope, wraps it around me, and that is “wheelchair bound.” For “confined to a wheelchair” she takes me to a corner, faces me in, and tells me I’m a bad boy.
    People think in terms of what they hear, and they think in terms of what they say. Common sense, as you suggest, could go a long way toward benefitting everyone.

    Liked by 2 people

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