Appropriate Language About People With Disabilities


As far as I know, African Americans do not want to be referred to as “negroes” even though that was a common term 50 years ago. Even though that term remains in a scholarship fund name, the United Negro College Fund, the term has fallen out of favor. Likewise, a large organization called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People uses a term for African Americans, “colored people,” that likewise has fallen out of favor. The organization usually goes only by its acronym, the NAACP. In a similar way, there are terms that were used to refer to people with disabilities that have fallen out of favor.

Some terms are way out of favor, like “idiot” and “imbecile,” which once were labels to designate people with a particular levels of intelligence. Now they are only insults. In time, “retarded” came into favor. It was not used as an insult, but as a descriptive term. In the same way that one might retard the spark when setting a car’s timing, or one might retard a line of music for dramatic effect, so it was thought appropriate to refer to people have slowed intellectual development compared to the average as “retarded.”

Since the term “retarded” has also become an insult, most organizations that used the term as a descriptive label have abandoned it. Even U.S. law has changed from using the term "mental retardation" to the term “intellectual disability.”

Just Politically Correct?
Some people say that using different terms to refer to people gives in to a movement to be politically correct. But the way we refer to other people affects how we think of them. In our everyday language, we need to recognize that there are more dignified and less dignified ways to refer to people with disabilities.

If we want to honor the image of God in each individual, we’ll use the more dignified language, not because it is politically correct, but because it avoids condescension and recognizes the fundamental equality of people. For example, I have heard people refer to men and women who have intellectual disabilities as “kids” or as “boys and girls.” That’s demeaning. Even if people don’t have the intellectual capacity of most other adults, anyone over 18 should be referred to as a “man” or “woman” not a “kid.” And most people I know who live with disabilities do not like to be referred to as "challenged" or "special."  

People First Language
Kathie Snow has done remarkably good work on language used to refer to people with disabilities. She argues, “When we adopt new ways of thinking and talking about people with disabilities, we'll not only exert a positive influence on their lives, but on our society as a whole. We've seen the power of language on other groups; we've made changes and no longer use ethnic slurs and other harmful descriptors. Now it's time to extend that courtesy to the boys, girls, men, and women in our neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and communities who happen to have disabilities.”

The big idea that she promotes is “people first language.” Obviously she argues that we must avoid slurs and insulting language. But just as important, instead of identifying people with their disability (such as “the disabled,” “the blind,” “the mentally ill”), our language and attitudes need to reflect that truth that anyone with a disability is first of all a person. So, better terms would be “people with disabilities,” “people who are blind,” and “people living with mental illnesses.”

If you want your written and spoken communication to reflect your desire to give dignity to all people, make sure you use people first language when you refer to people who have disabilities. Check out Kathie Snow’s fine little article, A Few Words about People First Language. For more depth, Snow's four-page article, People First Language, is excellent. A good place to change our attitudes is with our words. Practicing people first language begins that change well.

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I always learn so much from you, Mark! My almost-three-year-old godson is fascinated by anything on wheels, not to mention that he notices EVERYTHING, and I've been stretched as I've had to answer his many questions about people he sees who use wheelchairs or walkers . . . I try really hard to say things like "the chair helps him get around" but am acutely aware of the language I use, and I have you to thank for that, at least in part. :-) My recent challenge was with a woman using a cane . . . his reaction was "she has an owie?" and I struggled to try to explain that it may or may not be an "owie", as in something that was temporary--but that this was to help her walk. Maybe it was permanent, maybe not. I worry constantly that I am saying the "wrong" thing, but I keep trying :-)

I am relentless in attacking the use of the word "retarded", to the point where the teens in my church probably roll their virtual eyes at me every time I call them out on it on Facebook. Another huge pet peeve of mine is people who say "so-and-so *IS* ADHD" instead of "HAS" ADHD. I was disappointed recently as I listened to an audiobook on child discipline and heard the author (a psychologist) consistently use the term "they ARE ADHD".  This goes hand-in-hand with my dislike of people's flippant, "ha ha, I'm so ADD today" comments . . . if they really knew the pain and struggles of those of us who are living with ADHD, they would not be so casual in their joking about it. 

Thanks, as always, for challenging us to re-think the way we speak about people, all of whom are created in God's image . . . 



Lorraine, thanks for the encouragement. And thanks for spreading the good words to your youth group, and many others. I've heard many people also use similar phrases like, "He is bi-polar." A phrase like that implies that his bi-polar disorder defines everything about him. I wear glasses because I have myopia, but I would not like it if people said about me, "He is myopic." Mark

I refer to my children (18, 21 and 23), none of whom are dealing with intellectual disabilities, as "kids".

People in church frequently refer to those in the college-age range as "kids" and mean nothing more than that they're about the age their own children are.  Heck, I'm 47 and my mother still refers to me and to my brothers as "you kids" as do many of the elderly in the congregation.  They are not insulting me when they do so, either.

The attempt to correct the heart by correcting the language is to treat the symptom rather than the disease.  The disease is not the words "retarded" or "kid" or "idiot", but the condescension and self-elevation that may be intended through the use of those words or phrases.  While some words, such as "idiot" have become so wholly the realm of insult that it is safe to say don't ever use it.  "Kid" has not yet reached that point.  And one of the reasons "retarded" has gotten there is because (as a society) we never really addressed the heart of the matter when we dropped "idiot" from the approved lexicon.  You could get rid of "retarded" and "kid", but the heart of pride and condescension will just find a different word. Chasing language like this is a striving after wind.

The myriad changes in the word or phrase used to refer to Black people hasn't eradicated racism, either.  It's the heart, not the word.  So  I am not really concerned about people-first language.  I'm concerned about hearts obedient to the great commandment and the second like it.

I agree that the heart does matter . . . but for the broader community, and for changing societal attitudes (which I agree may or may not lead to heart change), I think that language *is* important. 

As a parallel to the use of "kid" . . . one of my best friends/sisters has four teenage boys. I have always referred to them as "Mona's boys". However, they are African-American, and I am acutely aware of the fact that a) there is a rather ugly history around white people referring to black folks as "boy" and b) that, while they are and always will be Mona's "boys", they are now young men. Similarly, my sister Mona will say to her three-year-old, "Boy, you need to get over here", but I would never dream of addressing him in that way.  

Another example--when I used to volunteer at a children's hospital, I remember one little boy who was five years old, but was very small due to his medical condition (probably the size of a two-year-old). Someone said something to the effect of, "Wow . . . he's smart!" and I could tell that they were not seeing him as a five-year-old who is able to do typical five-year-old things. I think this is more of the connection that Mark is trying to make when talking about referring to an intellectually disabled person as a "kid". I don't think we're talking about the generic usage of the term, but rather, about not seeing these adults as adults. 

On an individual basis, I agree that the heart is more of an issue than the language we use, but if we are going to effect change in society as a whole, the language we use DOES matter. 



I agree too that the change must take place in the heart. However, change can happen in either direction. A changed heart can change what comes from our lips, and what comes from our lips can change our hearts.

Words change how we think and live. We Protestants believe that words are the most important tool for affecting change in the heart, in behavior, and in society. That's why the pulpit is the primary piece of furniture in most protestant churches, not the table or the font. Ask any dictator, revolutionary, congressperson, or MP about the words, and they will tell you that these are their primary tools. In fact, Robert Roberts is so convinced of the importance of words to human life, that he coined a term to describe the primary nature of human life, we are not herbivores, carnivores, or omnivores. We are "verbivores." Words are our primary food.

Besides the power of language to change behavior and hearts, there's another good reason to use people first language. Most people who live with disabilities prefer to be referred to using people first language. I think that when it comes to people groups, whether an ethnic group in Africa, an ethnic minority in North America, or people with disabilities, people outside the group should not decide for the members of the group how they should be referred to. Rather, members of the group should decide for themselves how they want to be referred to. Others who are outside the group should then use that particular term. It's simply a matter of respect. Why doesn't society refer to "negroes," or "colored people" anymore? It's because (most) people in society want to respect the preference of this ethic group and refer to them as (most of) them ask. So we use the term "African American." Similar, most people who have disabilities do not like the term "the disabled" (and many similar ones) because these terms identify people with their disability. Let's listen to people with disabilities, and how they ask society to refer to them by using people first language.