Respectful Disability Language
This is the first part of a two-part series on disability language.
History makes it known to us that the first way to devalue someone is through language.
When people begin to attach negative, erroneous, and hurtful meanings to the words we use, they can cause damage and hinder us from understanding or accepting the identity of the individuals these words refer to. How our culture deals with this matter is through adapting the language we use to remove the stigma glued to these words. It can be through entirely substituting the words or phrases (such as, from mental retardation to intellectual disability), or through modifying them, making inaccurate descriptions more accurate (such as, from wheelchair-bound to wheelchair user).
Let’s look at one example: the historical classification of intelligent quotient. A century ago, an IQ below 75 was categorised as moron, imbecile, and idiot. These are considered extremely distasteful and completely unacceptable in our present time. Thirty years ago, the classification applied to an IQ below 70 was mentally retarded, which is likewise already considered pejorative today. We therefore observe that what used to be an acceptable description can become highly inappropriate, because there is a tendency for human beings to use words, sometimes even originally neutral or innocuous ones, to demean, bring shame, or marginalise others. That is why there is a need to substitute words and phrases with new terms to eliminate the malice ascribed to them.
Some time ago, individuals with Down Syndrome were referred to as Mongoloids. This came about due to the facial features of individuals with Down Syndrome. The skin fold of the upper eyelid mostly found in people of Asian descent is also called the Mongolian fold, which is likewise found in individuals with Down Syndrome. It led the physician who discovered this genetic disorder to refer to them as Mongoloids. This term is still used sometimes due to lack of awareness of the background of the condition.
Individuals with motor disabilities who are unable to walk use wheelchair to assist in their mobility. They are often described as wheel-chair bound. Individuals who are using a wheelchair may find it inappropriate, because the function of a wheelchair is to increase accessibility and therefore open doors for lots of opportunities, which is quite the opposite of binding. For them, a wheelchair enables, not limits or binds.
We get to see that education and increased awareness help in adjusting wrong notions and mistaken beliefs. Remember, knowledge is power. Our primary aim is to value and respect individuals with special needs for who they really are, and this happens when we arm ourselves with the knowledge and adequate grasp of their condition. When we understand the individual, we know how to adjust our words to recognise and give positive regard to the actual individual. It also allows us to assist and support them according to their exceptional needs. We get to empower individuals with special needs by empowering ourselves first.