What Do We Call 'Em?

Reprinted from PN November 2010

The concept to move toward more positive language was more than an effort to be politically correct.

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As this year is the twentieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), now is a good time to reflect. There have been a lot of positive changes since 1990. It is easy to see the most obvious physical ones like ramps and curb cuts. But let’s take a moment to appraise another area, where we have made some less obvious progress.

When I was thinking about the early days of ADA, one example of an ADA success came to mind: the language change. Many people who acquired their disability in the post-ADA era may be completely unaware of what an issue language was and how directly ADA effected this change.

A conscious decision was made to address attitudes through language in the ADA. The act was the major first step toward moving to what is known as “people-first language.” It was hoped the term “handicapped” would no longer be used, at least in official documents. “Individual with a disability” or “individuals with disabilities” became the normal term.

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Today the terms used most often are “people with disabilities,” “person with a disability,” or “disabled.” This move to “people first” language has been fairly successful. The term “handicapped” is now mostly in reference to parking.

ADA was the first major civil rights law to pass since the 1960s. ADA compliance was a hot topic in the 1990s. Businesses of all sizes were looking for help as they tried to get policies and procedures in place to implement this new law. All types of efforts were made to disseminate and clarify ADA information. From massive conferences to informal lunch-and-learn sessions, people were seeking information.

I was often asked to serve on panels and speak to groups about ADA implementation. Language was a key issue. One question that always came up in one form or another was, “What are we supposed to call these people now?”

Put Them First!

The proper answer involved explaining the new terminology, because people-first language was a new concept. The first step was to address how terms

are used. “Individual/person with a disability” or “individuals/persons/people with disabilities” separated the person from the disability. “Disabled individual (or person/people)” is acceptable when used in a descriptive manner.

Labeling versus descriptive. Calling someone “the disabled guy” is an example of labeling. “Tony, the guy in HR who uses a wheelchair” or “Tony is a disabled person” are descriptive uses. The concept to move toward more positive language was more than an effort to be politically correct.

The terminology was easier to address for written uses, especially in formal documents like policies and procedures. The more difficult issue was in verbal uses. Managers, Human Resources staff, sales forces, and customer service and other employees who interface with the public was a major training issue. Businesses kept coming back to the question, “What are we supposed to call these people now?”

Here is where the issue of why the changes were made was addressed. Many of the old terms had such negative connotations they were detrimental in most circumstances—even the term “handicapped.” While the exact origin is debated, “the handicapped” were the street beggars sitting hat in hand, looking for a handout, tipping their hats to the generous souls helping the poor cripples.

Employment was a major issue in passing ADA. If you were a hiring manager, how would you feel about Human Resources presenting you with an applicant described as “crippled” “deaf and dumb,” or “retarded”?

Sorting It Out

There has been considerable change for the better, but the general populace is not well versed in the more disability-specific language. “Wheelchair user,” “nonverbal,” and “mentally impaired” are not only more positive terms but also are more descriptive. Blind refers to a person who has no vision, and visually impaired is someone who has some vision; a deaf person has no hearing, but an individual who is hearing impaired has some hearing. Isn’t that easier to understand?

Level of impairment is another concept the average person does not understand. Take spinal-cord injuries, for example. People seem to understand paraplegia means you can use your arms but not your legs. Various injury levels and how that effects trunk function and balance are factors most people do not even know enough about to consider.

Quadriplegia is something people seem to misunderstand. I call it the Christopher Reeve effect. Because Reeve spoke out and became a visible image, people learned he was quadriplegic. Most people are not familiar with any other quads; they assume all quads are like him.

However, I am a quad who uses a manual chair. I constantly explain that “quadriplegic” means some impairment in your arms and legs, not always the full loss of use of them.

Other terms in use seem to have various levels of acceptance/dislike in the disability community based upon personal preferences. “Differently-abled” and “physically challenged” are not my favorites. I know many people like them as nonoffensive terms. However, I believe they are too politically correct—almost condescending—but not offensive.

Personally, the term I find offensive is “wheelchair bound.” My chair is my tool; I’m not tied into it! But it is a term too often used by the media.

People-first language has been the biggest success in the language change. People use the language they hear. “People with disabilities,” “person with a disability” or “the disabled” is the common language now.

Still, there are occasions where people unknowingly use some inappropriate terms. This is why I am fond of using humor to address a situation. Sometimes it is dark humor, which I use for the shock value. I often use the not exactly appropriate term “gimp” in order to raise the language issue.

When discussing language, whether back at the conferences or now, I chose to address what terms not to use for people who are not disabled. Describing them as “normal people” then implies what—that we are not normal? And the term you hear a lot from people in the rehab field is “AB” or “able bodied.”

By this time having made the pertinent point, it was time to take this a bit further, in my own twisted manner. Whether answering a question, speaking to a group, or just having fun with nondisabled people I began to—and still do—explain that “We have names for you, too.” AB for able bodied; TAB for temporarily able bodied, because they all are; CRAB for currently regarded as able bodied, again because who knows what the future holds; and my personal favorite, “walkies,” because that is what they are.

My best friend’s name is Jim Walker. Once in a group I called him a walkie. When someone asked me, “What did you call him?” I had to explain: “Jim’s name is Walker, but he, like you, is just a walkie—a simple biped—while I am a roller, a more evolved tool user who rides around on a cushioned chair.”

You need to have some fun with the walkies!

Measure of Change

Language has improved significantly in the 20 years since ADA’s passage. The success of the language change is best measured by the absence of many of the more offensive terms of the past.

There is still work to be done to further educate the general populace on more of the positive terms. And there are times you may have to address the question, “What do we call them?”

I have my final answer, and I believe most disabled people will agree with me on this point. You can describe me as a wheelchair user, the guy in the chair, or a quad—but please call me Tony.

Note: For many years, PN’s style has been to put “people” first: people with disabilities, people with physical challenges, people with mental/visual impairments, etc. For the free pamphlet “Disability Language: The Right Words,” send a stamped, self-addressed, business-size envelope to PVA Publications/Language, 2111 East Highland Avenue, Suite 180, Phoenix, AZ 85016.


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