The Role of Language in Addressing People With Disabilities

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought

- George Orwell

Throughout history, persons with disabilities have been stigmatized in many ways. They have either been hidden from society which meant that the rest of the people didn’t get the opportunity to understand the disabilities or when given the opportunity they were mostly viewed with sympathy that came along with a sense of pity, fear and/or horror.

Language is a reflection of how people in a society see each other. The use of language has been a major contributor to sustaining the stigma towards persons with disabilities for centuries and almost all over the world.

The words or phrases people speak and write plus the order in which they are sequenced greatly affects the images that are formed about individuals with disabilities and the negative or positive impressions that result (Blaska, 1993).

In the past, a variety of terms, labels, and descriptors have been used which often were derogatory and tended to perpetuate negative attitudes and false stereotypes. Too often language has been used that portrayed people with disabilities in "stereotypical, imprecise or devaluing ways" (Hadley & Martin, 1988). We’re all aware of the derogatory terms that we’ve seen people use and unfortunately, most of us have also been guilty of using them ourselves or at least of not speaking up when we’ve seen other people use them in our presence.

Why bother with using appropriate language?

Persons with disabilities constitute a significant part of the Indian population. Their numbers are more than the total population of many countries in the world, and India has one of the highest numbers of people with disabilities globally.

Additionally, the use of language can shape attitudes and perceptions. With appropriate language, we can avoid perpetuating old stereotypes and cultivate a healthy, inclusive environment for persons with disabilities. The fact that we can affect the well-being of a minority population itself signifies the importance of being aware of the way in which we communicate while addressing persons with disabilities.

How to communicate respectfully?

The use of words or expressions when referring to persons with disabilities are very subtle and might seem unimportant. However, "when one considers that language is a primary means of communicating attitudes, thoughts, and feelings ... the elimination of words and expressions that stereotype becomes an essential part of creating an inclusive environment" (Froschl, et al., 1984).

People-First Language:

People First Language puts the person before the disability and describes what a person has, not who a person is. People First Language is not political correctness; instead, it demonstrates good manners, respect, the Golden Rule, and more—it can change the way we see a person, and it can change the way a person sees herself (Snow, 2009).

A few examples of People-First Language:

The words used to describe a person have a powerful impact on the person’s self-image. For generations, the hearts and minds of people with disabilities have been crushed by negative, stereotypical words which created harmful, mythical perceptions and caused other detrimental consequences. We must stop believing and perpetuating the myths — the lies — of labels. Children and adults who have conditions called “disabilities” are unique individuals with unlimited potential, like everyone else (Snow, 2009).

On the other spectrum of the debate, many self-advocates actually believe in being identified with their disability first. After almost 30 years since the popularity of the person-first language, many people with disabilities (or disabled people) actually reject the idea of using person-first language and think that no characteristic of a human being should be ignored.

Regardless of what the general consensus is, the ideal scenario should be the one where we ask the person with disability about how we should be addressing them and desist from assuming ourselves that either the person-first language or identifying as a “disabled person” is wrong.

Finally, the sooner we learn to be aware of how differently things can look through the eyes of others, the sooner we’ll be more likely to understand and focus on what people have in common with us than what separates them.

Take home points:

  • The diagnosis is nobody’s business.

  • Use Person-First-Language. That is, put the person before the disability, and describe what a person has, not who a person is.

  • Don’t use negative words to describe disabilities. Words such as “tragedy” or “suffering” can convey a stigmatizing view of disability. People are not “confined to wheelchairs,” but rather use wheelchairs.

  • Disability is a complex experience that differs from person to person and changes over time. Listen to them to discover how you can communicate in a way that helps them develop positive self-esteem by referring to them in words that acknowledge ability, merit and dignity.

  • There is a huge self-advocacy movement where even the idea of Person first language is being debated. Some self-advocates actually believe in being identified with their disability first. So we should take the cue from the person with the disability as to how they would like to be referred to.

Until we learn to appreciate the power of language and the importance of using it responsibly, we will continue to produce negative social consequences for those victimized by dangerous language habits.

— J. Dan Rothwell, Telling It Like It Isn't:

Language Misuse and Malpractice/What We Can Do About It



Blaska, J. (1993). The power of language: Speak and write using “person first.”. Perspectives on disability, 25-32.

Hadley, R. G., & Brodwin, M. G. (1988). Language about people with disabilities. Journal of Counseling & Development, 67(3), 147-149.

Snow, K. (2009) People First Language,