What’s The “Politically Correct” Thing to Say with Disability? (With Star Trek Gifs)

I’ve been a person with a disability for most of my life, but only been a member of the Down syndrome community for 6 years. In between my life lived with disabilities and being a parent of a child with a disability, I’ve seen an awful lot of upset over words that are directed towards the disability community, however inadvertently. I myself have been one of those that have been upset.

It happens something like this:

Someone famous says something offensive (- usually involving the word, “retard”)

  • The Down syndrome/disability community bellows
  • The famous person or situation or whatever apologizes
  • The Down syndrome/disability community simmers down.
  • …and repeat

I know parents from the Down syndrome community are sick of it, and people with disabilities are even more so. But I also know that there is a certain amount of weariness that is felt by members outside of our community. That is, people outside of our community who care about us and our kids, people who want to be our friends and allies, people who want to do and say the right thing.

And the weariness easily switches to wariness.

Like, nervousness about saying something offensive. When is a word okay? How is a world okay? If the word is okay with YOU, will it be okay with THEM? Is that person over there going to jump on me? But wait – YOU said it was okay, YOU say that yourself -? Arrrrrghhhh!

I completely get it and I don’t think there are easy answers because I think so much of this depends on individual preference. There are no universal agreed-upon guidelines. That makes it tricky, you know, for allies to the disabled/Down syndrome parent community.

They say “people with disabilities” and you say “disabled.” But that girl using a wheelchair says “gimp” or “crip”. You are not a “person with deafness”, you are a “deaf person” but Moxie is not a “Down syndrome child”; she’s a “person with Down syndrome.”

It’s person first language…until it’s not.

Then you get the really fun stuff: Archaic Words!

Those are words that have evolved but still carry some of their original meaning. Moron, idiot, cretin, mongo all fall under that – as well as retard. So, what do you do? Do you say none of the words? What if you want to use the actual meaning of the word in a correct context, like “retard growth”? What if you forget? What if you never knew? What if you SUCK and just MESS UP and someone catches you and you are proved to be a COMPLETELY INSENSITIVE and HURTFUL HUMAN BEING?!!!!!!


Oh, you monster.


No easy answers. I don’t know what to say, really, because I know if I tell you something, someone else will be telling you something different.

And then the person over in that group over there is going to tell you it’s all balderdash anyway


Some general advice and definitions though.

  1. “Special needs” WAS an educational term, not a disability term. Now, it’s just a term that you should be staying way the hell away from  (see this post)
  2. “Disability” is a particular way of seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking, moving, learning, sensing, being. It’s not negative. It’s a way of experiencing the world.
  3. Saying ‘disabled’ is fine; ‘person with a disability’ is fine too, but refer to how the person wants to be referred to as. Roll with their example.
  4. When you don’t know… ASK
  5. Slurs… why slur anyway? just stick with good, solid English cuss words.


Originally published on June 26, 2015

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Meriah Nichols is a career counselor, teacher and blogger. Single mom to 3 (one with Down syndrome, one gifted 2E), she is also a Trekkie who likes her coffee hot and black.
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