Rethinking the Words We Use

Most of us have probably heard the phrase, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Anyone who has ever been hurt by words knows how untrue this statement can be. Our words matter. They can be used to build up and to encourage, or to tear down.

As we’ve become more sensitive to the needs of people with disabilities, one aspect that is behind the curve is the words we use to describe each other. Licensed therapist and disabled advocate, Gabrielle Ficchi, PhD, helps us to take a closer look at person-first language, and why it matters to be aware of the words we use.

As we take a closer look at person-first language, what should we be aware of when it comes to selecting the words we use?

I think something to be aware of is what connotations come with the language we use. So, for example, person-first language puts the individual before the disability. Such as: a person with cerebral palsy, a person with Down syndrome, a person who is blind, etc. This school of thought came from the person-first movement in the 1970s to empower individuals with disabilities by seeing them as individuals first. The conversation being, it was more appropriate to see the individual for who they were, rather than identifying them based on their disability.

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What we say, and how we choose to say it, carries meaning. I value person-first language in professional settings where the individual should be seen and heard, and their perspective should be validated. I also value the shift to identity person-first language, especially for a disabled person that is embracing who they are. For example, I myself identify as a disabled woman. I think one of the most important things in selecting the words we use in this community is recognizing that disability and disabled are not bad words. We need to be aware of the language we are using when describing disability because it’s often tragic or negative, which carry negative connotations.

What are some examples of things people say that might be harmful or offensive?

I think one of the most harmful things we can do in terms of language is euphemisms for disabilities. For example, things like differently-abled, disABILITY, challenged, etc. This type of language supports the idea of disability itself being something negative. Disabled or disability are not bad words, and disabled people should be given the opportunity to embrace their identities, and be proud of them, instead of trying to hide them or make them something separate.

What else should people keep in mind?

One thing I have been trying to perpetuate for a while now, along with a lot of individuals within the disability community, is moving away from the term “special needs.” The needs of disabled people are not “special” — they are just needs. Calling them special implies they are something extra, when in reality, needs related to your disability are just human needs.

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