Labels for people with disabilities

Labels matter

Respecting what people call themselves

It can sometimes be confusing when a group of people start calling themselves something different and ask you to do the same. Language changes and so too does cultural norms and the labels applied to people. Over time, we have seen people with disabilities (as well as other minorities) change what they prefer to be called.

  • Once we used the word “handicapped.” Now many prefer to use the words “person with a disability” so as to put the person before their disability.
  • Once we referred to people as having “shell shock.” This has moved towards “post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” perhaps to be more inclusive people who share the condition who are not survivors of war.
  • Once we referred to people as “retarded.” Now, most will prefer the words “intellectual disabilities,” perhaps due to how many have used “retarded” in a casual derogatory sense.

These changes can be confusing

As an outsider, this can seem overwhelming and confusing. You will probably say the wrong thing and you might even be corrected. I certainly have!

This experience of being corrected can be embarrassing, especially if it happens publicly. But it’s important to realize why you’re being corrected–and why this is more important than your pride.

Often, labels are applied to a group of outsiders and people in the minority, including those with disabilities. Often, these people did not choose what to be called–the labels might be chosen by medical professionals, government, cultural influencers, or society at large. Historically, some labels might have been used to denigrate people or remind them of their “lesser than” status in society.

And so people choose to change these labels.

Giving people the power to identify themselves shifts the power from us to them. This shift is important: this empowers them to transform a label into an identity.

Labels will keep changing

Recently, we’ve been seeing a growing popularity around the word “neurodiversity.” This term aims to be more inclusive of people whether they have autism, ADHD, or obsessive compulsive disorder. Some people prefer to use the term “neurodiversity” while others prefer to be specific about the condition they experience.

And these labels will keep changing. For example:

Currently, it is culturally acceptable to casually use the word “crazy” in order to describe any number of wild and unpredictable things. We call ourselves “crazy;” we call each other “crazy;” everything is just “crazy.” People who experience psychological disorders would be right to take offense to this. So it’s important to be receptive when the time comes to retire this word. And we need to be especially mindful of applying this label in a way that’s hurtful towards people who are different.

Bottom line: be respectful, be empathetic, and seek to call people what they want to be called.

Asking People About their Disability

Curiosity is Not the Problem

Asking People About Their Disabilities

Have you ever wondered:

How a wheelchair user drives a car?
– What it’s like to experience a panic attack?
– How a diabetic knows how to regulate their blood sugar?

It’s natural to have questions. Having a disability means that you adapt to the world and this makes your experiences different and interesting! Any one of these questions are not inherently problematic, and many people with disabilities will gladly tell you about their lived experience. However, what can be problematic is the WAY we ask these questions.

Advice for Asking Better Questions

1 – Consider the Intention of your Questions

If you’re asking a question with the intention of confirming your biases or to validate your judgement of a person, your question is not going to be received well. On the other side of the coin, while we may want to help, they might not need your help–don’t ask questions with the intention of “rescuing” them.

2 – Set Your Tone Carefully

Asking someone “what’s wrong with you?” is not a great tone to set. Be polite.

3 – Consider Your Timing

Would you walk up to a stranger and immediately ask them personal questions? Or would you ask a co-worker personal questions in a public space or in front of others? Carefully consider when you ask someone these kinds of questions and in what environment.

4 – Ask Permission

Disability can be a guarded topic that we may not want to talk about, or a person with a disability may get asked about their condition so often they’re sick of talking about it! It’s important to realize that someone may not want to talk about their disability with you–so give them space to opt out. To start a conversation, I recommend starting with “Do you mind if I ask you about XXXX?”

Let’s Talk About It

If you have questions, we’re happy to talk about it! Also, did you know we recruit people with disabilities?