This post is about the politically correct term for disabled and politically correct term for special needs. It’s for everyone out there like my friend who asked me to write this post because she was just confused by all the talk out there about what to call us!

So here we go.

The Trajectory of the Disabled

I’ve been a person with a disability for most of my life, and a member of the Down syndrome community (thanks to my daughter!) for 8 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 with the Down syndrome community:

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

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

The Greater Disability Community:

With the greater (cross-disability) community, it’s more of a matter of never ending-ness. It’s the constant little pin-pricks of the “handi-capable”, “special needs”, the references to “wheelchair bound”, and the “differently-abled.”

Everyone is pretty sick of it. The Down syndrome community is sick of it, the greater (cross-disability) disability is sick of it, and there we go.

What is the Politically Correct Term for Disabled People?

I know – just like most of you do as well – that there is a certain amount of weariness 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 identify-first.

That is, it’s person-first language – a person with a disability – until the person sees disability as an identity, then it becomes identify first.

Identify-first is: deaf person, blind person, disabled person.

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.

YEAH.

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

So, what IS the politically correct term for the disabled? “Special Needs”?

No. Don’t call us “special needs.” Our needs are not “special”, they are human. With that in mind, some basic guidelines for politically correct and the disabled:

  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. Nothing about “disability” indicates “ability” (see this post)
  4. Saying ‘disabled’ is fine; ‘person with a disability’ is fine too, but see how the person wants to be referred to as. Roll with their example.
  5. When you don’t know… ASK

Originally published on June 26, 2015

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Meriah
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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4 Comments

  1. I am a disabled person. My oldest childhood friend is a person with a disability. We are still friends. I’m allowed to call myself a spaz. Neil has to use other words to describe me. I was at an event yesterday, and some stewards were helping me up a hill. They referred to me as ‘the wheelchair’ and my four year-old shouts, ‘She’s my Mum!’ I was really proud and the dudes were embarrassed, and learned something. Worked for me.

    • that’s so awesome/not awesome and YES. We choose the words we want to use for ourselves, not others!

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