Transforming the Language of Disability: A Call for Authenticity and Respect

Written by Miranda Forbes Sep 19, 2023 Uncategorized

In an attempt to discuss disability with a softer touch, society has adopted a series of euphemisms like “special needs,” “handicapable,” and “differently-abled.” However, why do we resort to these complex, indirect terms instead of addressing the matter head-on? The answer lies in discomfort.

Euphemisms, defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “mild or indirect words or expressions substituted for harsh or blunt ones when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing,” have emerged to ease unease surrounding disability. Paradoxically, these well-intentioned euphemisms have inadvertently deepened the stigma associated with disability. By using euphemisms, we convey that disability is a topic to be concealed, an aspect of life that is “too harsh” to be discussed openly, perpetuating harmful ablest attitudes.

The history of disability concealment is a dark one. The United States has a painful legacy of institutionalizing and isolating disabled individuals from the public eye. The era of “Ugly Laws” stands as a chilling reminder, reflecting society’s view of disabled individuals as “unpleasant or embarrassing,” a perception that led to cruelty and injustice behind locked doors.

Presently, despite comprising the world’s largest minority, people with disabilities continue to endure stigmatization. A staggering 25% of the US population lives with a disability, yet our discomfort in addressing this topic remains palpable.

Ironically, the term “special needs,” designed to sound gentler, has been found to have a negative impact. A study titled “‘Special Needs’ is an ineffective euphemism” revealed that referring to someone as having “special needs” elicits more negative perceptions than directly acknowledging their disability. This misguided euphemism has pervaded our language, applied to individuals, schools, and parents alike. Yet, disabled leaders and advocates assert that the preferred terms are either “disabled person” (identity-first language) or “person with a disability” (person-first language). When unsure, the best approach is to ask which terminology an individual prefers.

Moreover, the term “special needs” fails to accurately reflect reality. Housing, care, sustenance, education, and community are universal rights, not “special” privileges. Embracing the principles of universal design and an inclusive mindset ensures that everyone’s needs can be met, enabling all to flourish. The “Not Special Needs” campaign by CoorDown humorously exposes the absurdity of this euphemism by highlighting genuinely “special” needs.

Beyond contributing to stigma, many euphemisms come across as patronizing, aiming for cuteness or inspiration. Unfortunately, this perpetuates challenges faced by the disability community, such as infantilization, inspiration porn, saviorism, and identity pride issues.

The path towards progress involves fostering pride and understanding. Disabled artist, activist, and communications director for the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, Lawrence Carter-Long, sparked the #SayTheWord movement on Twitter, encouraging the abandonment of euphemisms in favor of promoting identity pride. Disability is an integral aspect of human diversity, neither inherently positive nor negative, and deserving of respect.

In our pursuit of knowledge and growth, it is imperative that we adopt more inclusive and accurate language. The disability community is a haven of creativity, innovation, and mutual support. The term “disabled” connects us to a shared history of perseverance and progress, uniting us in the fight for a world where disability is embraced and acknowledged with pride.

Our words hold immense power. Let us proudly say, “disabled!”

*Note: While some individuals with disabilities choose to use the term “special needs” to self-identify, the decision should be left to each individual and not imposed or regulated by those without disabilities.