Language and Culture – How to Talk about Disability in your Community

The language a society uses to refer to persons with disabilities shapes its beliefs and ideas about them. Here are some guidelines to help you respectfully navigate conversations about disability.

One of the major improvements in communicating with and about people with disabilities is called “Person-First Language.” Person-First Language emphasizes the person, not the disability.

By placing emphasis on the person rather than the disability, the disability is no longer the primary, defining characteristic of an individual, but one of several aspects of the whole person.

The culture of disability rights focuses on challenging the norms of society. Its core values as a culture are reflected in art, conversation, goals and behaviors.

Using what is called “person-first language” is an objective way of acknowledging, communicating, and reporting on disabilities. It eliminates generalizations and stereotypes, by focusing on the person rather than the disability. Here are some examples of person first language, as well as language to avoid:

  • Person-first: Person(s) with disability(ies), people with disabilities
  • Non-preferred: A handicapped person, the disabled, PWD, PwD
  • Person-first: A person without a disability
  • Non-preferred: A normal person, an able person, able-bodied
  • Person-first: A person with a physical disability
  • Non-preferred: A crippled, physically challenged, infirm
  • Person-first: A person with low vision, a person who is blind
  • Non-preferred: The blind
  • Person-first: A person who is hard of hearing, a person who is deaf, a Deaf person
  • Non-preferred: The deaf, the hard of hearing, deaf and dumb
  • Person-first: A person with an intellectual disability
  • Non-preferred: Mentally retarded, mentally challenged, dumb, crazy
  • Person-first: A person with a mental condition, a person living with schizophrenia, a person living with bipolar disorder
  • Non-preferred: Insane, lunatic, mentally sick, mentally imbalanced, mad person, mentally ill person, psycho, crazy

The golden rule: when in doubt about the right language to use, it’s always best to ask. People will appreciate your effort to use the right language when you are genuine.

Attitude matters!

  • Avoid sympathetic words and language. Historically, people with disabilities were shown extra sympathy by persons with disabilities. However, there is no reason to do this – persons with disabilities are not suffering – and it violates the rights of persons with disabilities, according to experts.
  • Similarly, avoid patronizing persons with disabilities, and/or avoid using patronizing or condescending words. It disempowers persons with disabilities.
  • Any word that directly or indirectly expresses hate or humiliation should be totally stopped/restricted.
  • There should be use of words having mutual respect and dignity between people with disabilities and people without disabilities
  • Labels of medical diagnoses devalue and disrespect individuals with disabilities. In contrast, using thoughtful terminology e.g. person-first language can foster positive attitudes about persons with disabilities.

Case study: how culture affects language and perceptions on disability in Nepal

  • Language preferences will differ dependent on the culture. In Nepal, many of the words still in use are surprising and shocking. For example, a commonly used word in Nepali for “blind” is “Dristihin” or “Netrahin,” which translates loosely to vision less, without eye or eye-less. While Nepali people who are blind do not accept this terminology, there is not language to use in its place. There is a need for DPO leaders and experts in the disability sector to review the language used and to suggest rights-based language.
  • In some communities in Nepal, disability is believed to be a result of the sins committed by the people in their past life. Due to this religious superstition, Nepali people often react towards people with disabilities with bad or inappropriate behavior, e.g. showing sympathy, disrespect and or humiliating people with disabilities.
  • Sometimes, persons with disabilities themselves hold specific beliefs rooted in their culture or context, e.g. some persons with visual impairments claim they have an inner vision to see the world, address problems and analyze situations.
  • That being said, there are positive developments around disability rights in Nepal. For example, local and national media have aired jingles and programs using the correct language for public awareness. In addition, a growing number of organizations have a mandate to work on disability. These organizations also contribute to the production of media, for example posters and sponsorship of TV and radio media on disability rights.