Talking With and About People with Disabilities

Woman in wheelchair using tablet talking

The New Hire

Imagine your company has hired a new employee in your department. Let’s say it’s a woman named Sue. Sue will be in the cubicle adjoining yours, and you will be responsible for showing her the ropes- from how to complete job tasks to how to use the coffee maker. You carefully create and print out a document with all the info Sue will need as a reference guide to make her onboarding smooth and efficient. But when Sue shows up for her first day of work, she’s wearing sunglasses and carrying a long white cane – Sue is blind. How can you help her learn her job when you don’t know how she accesses software? You may not know what to ask, or how to interact with her. You might worry about offending her. Talking about disabilities can make some people uncomfortable, so here are some ways to ensure easy, comfortable interactions.

People want to be themselves, not their disability

As someone without a disability, it can be difficult to authentically empathize (without sympathizing or pitying) with someone who does have a disability. How can you put yourself in the position of someone who experiences life in different ways than you do? 

Patti McVay, a renowned educator and inclusion specialist, explains the experience in this way: “Think of something that you don’t like about yourself that society has also deemed less desirable. Now take that word and put it in front of your name and imagine being called that word plus your name all your life. For me, the word “fat” comes to mind. The idea that I could be called “Fat Patti” all my life isn’t somewhere I’d like to go…”

Before considering what words to use when referring to a person’s disability, ask yourself if talking about disabilities is even necessary. If you’re talking about a coworker who is deaf and their participation in a meeting, his or her deafness has nothing to do with what he or she said in a meeting. Use a person’s name, not their disability, to distinguish who spoke or made a point. If their disability isn’t apparent, it is a violation of their privacy to discuss it, and it may make them uncomfortable. 

Person-First Language When Talking about Disabilities

When it is relevant, one of the most common principles in speaking about a person with a disability is person-first language. That means referring to the person first and express the disability in terms of something the person possesses, or as a part of them, not as their entire identity. For example, instead of saying Blind Sue, you would say Sue, who is blind. Or you might refer to Brian, the guy with the wheelchair, or Anne, the lady with the sign language interpreter, rather than paraplegic Brian or deaf Anne. After all, people are first and foremost people

Emphasize Abilities

Instead of focusing on what the person is unable to do, focus on what they can do, even if they require assistance to do it. For example, instead of saying someone can’t walk or is immobile, say instead that they use a wheelchair or mobility aid to get from one place to another. It expresses that they are not actually immobile, they just require a device to facilitate that mobility.  You might say a person who is blind uses a cane or guide dog to get around, or a person who is deaf communicates best via email or texts or in writing. 

Neither Hero nor Victim

Because it’s often difficult for people without disabilities to accurately empathize with people with disabilities, it can seem like people with disabilities are superhuman in their ability to complete everyday tasks. But in reality, being able to complete everyday tasks like making coffee, getting dressed or buying groceries is nothing special, and they should be considered as unremarkable for people with disabilities as for those without. Putting someone with a disability on a pedestal for doing what everyone does isn’t flattering or complementary to that person. It will only magnify the differences caused by that disability. People with disabilities perceive this language as demeaning, even if the speaker intends it to be complimentary. You probably wouldn’t enjoy someone making a fuss over you because you managed to make a trip to the post office alone. People with disabilities don’t enjoy it either. 

That being said, it is also inappropriate to consider people with disabilities to be victims. Maybe their disability occurred because they were victims at one point, but no one would want to be considered a victim every day for the rest of their lives. People with disabilities are simply people.

Ask before being a Good Samaritan

It’s kind, and appropriate to want to help someone out if they appear to be struggling. But make sure the person you want to help actually needs and wants to be helped. If a person is taking longer than you might take to get in or out of a vehicle or select the right laundry detergent at the store. Don’t just assume they’re unable to do it and start “helping.” If he or she needs help, they can ask. If you think they might need help but aren’t comfortable asking you, ask them! People with disabilities can be fiercely independent and resent your assistance.  This is especially true if they are proud of their ability to get things done, even if more slowly or awkwardly or differently than how you might do them.

Additionally, you cannot assume you know best HOW to help a person. What may seem like help to you may, in fact, be no help at all. If Sue comes to her first day at the office and spends an hour wandering around with her white cane, you might be tempted to lead her to her cubicle.  But in fact, what Sue needs is to be left alone to orient herself in her new environment. She can ask for directions if she needs them. 

Use neutral, Accurate Terms

Avoid terms that suggest a negative connotation. Disabilities are features that a person has, just like having blue eyes or dark hair. Likewise, speak about disabilities objectively. Avoid terms like “impairment,” “defective,” or “deformed.” Euphemisms work the same way- they mean well, but often end up taking a condescending tone.

The opposite is also true. Talking about people without disabilities as being “healthy” (in contrast to “disabled”) suggests that those with disabilities are “unhealthy”, when they may be perfectly healthy.

Blindness

Use the word “Blind”

“Blind” is not a bad word. It is a term that accurately describes the fact that a person lacks eyesight. Using a different term to describe blindness tries to remove an undeniable part of a person’s identity. James H. Omvig, who is a lawyer and member of the National Federation of the Blind, insists that identifying as being blind helps a person accept. “Using the word “blind” with ease and comfort is part of the first of these empowering ingredients–coming emotionally, not just intellectually, to know that he or she can be equal with others in our society. It is also part of this first adjustment ingredient that the blind person comes to know that he or she is normal and that it is perfectly respectable to be blind.”

Identify Yourself

While the person who is blind may hear your voice many times a day, identify yourself when speaking to him or her so there is no guesswork or confusion, particularly in a group setting.Let him or her know when you’re leaving the conversation as well. “Hi Sue, it’s Tim from accounting – do you have that invoice from our new vendor?  Great, thanks! See you later.” However, there is no need to speak louder or slower than a normal volume or pace, unless you know he or she also experiences hearing loss.

Be Specific, and Keep your Hands to Yourself

If a person who is blind needs directions or assistance getting from point A to point B, be very clear. If he or she is simply asking for directions, do not assume they need you to physically take them there. Just clearly explain where they need to go, using “left” or “right” instead of vague, “over there” or “that way.”

If a person with disabilities asks for your help to physically get somewhere, don’t push, pull, or drag them. Just allow him or her to place a hand on your arm and guide them at a comfortable pace.

Deafness

Use the word “deaf”

Like using the word “blind,” the word “deaf” is both accurate and appropriate. The term can be used in two different ways. First and foremost “deaf” (with a lowercase d) refers to an audiological condition of not hearing.  The group of deaf people who share a culture by using American Sign Language (ASL) use an uppercase D (“Deaf”) to differentiate themselves

Or “Hard of Hearing”

Another appropriate term is “hard of hearing.” This term can also be used in two ways. It can refer to a person who experiences mild-to-moderate hearing loss. It can also refer to someone who is deaf but is not a part of the Deaf community. People who are hard of hearing might have enough hearing to be able to participate in the “hearing” community, but have low enough hearing to make use of ASL, making them part of the Deaf community as well. Remember that none of these terms are mutually exclusive of one another, and it is up to the person as to how he or she wishes to identify him or herself.

What not to say

Words like “dumb” or “mute” to describe the inability to speak are archaic and inappropriate. People who were unable to speak were once thought to not have the mental capabilities to learn or understand reasoned thinking, and so were called “dumb”. They assumed that if people could not hear words, they could not develop cognitive abilities. Society once assumed an inability to vocalize caused the inability to speak and used the word “mute” to describe the condition. We know now that people who are deaf are usually capable of vocalizing. However, they don’t do so because they cannot hear themselves speak. Therefore, neither term is correct or appropriate; “deaf” is sufficient.

Physical Disabilities

People who have physical disabilities used to be referred to as “handicapped.” While the term is still widely used to describe parking spaces and larger bathroom stalls, it is no longer considered an appropriate way to describe people with physical disabilities. It is enough to say, “people with physical disabilities.”  The appropriate term is “accessible” when describing things like bathroom stalls or parking spaces.

In the early 20th century, social workers used the term “handicapped” to describe a person with disabilities. The word originally meant that an extra burden was placed on someone. However, people with disabilities chose to be identified as “disabled” starting in the 1970s because they wanted to choose their own term to be identified with, instead of retaining the term that had been assigned to them by someone else.

Use the word “handicap” to describe the situation that occurs when a person with a disability faces a barrier. For example, stairs would present a handicap for someone using a wheelchair if there is no ramp as an alternative. A ramp would remove the handicap. “Handicap” is only used to describe when someone has difficulty or is restricted in completing or participating in a particular activity. Do not use the term to describe the person themselves.

Don’t assume anyone needs help

As discussed above, don’t just assume someone needs help and jump in to “rescue” them. Even worse, grabbing someone to “help” them without asking whether they actually need help is inconsiderate, inappropriate, or even dangerous. People with disabilities are capable of getting around on their own or asking for help if they need it. 

Attention-deficit and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder

Use medical terminology only when necessary

Attention-deficit and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD and ADHD, respectively) are both very specific medical conditions. As such, the terms should not be used simply to describe someone who has a hard time focusing, only to describe someone who has been officially diagnosed when talking about disabilities. Because it is a medical condition, a diagnosis of ADD or ADHD can be sensitive and personal. Don’t discuss it unless that information is necessary to the topic of discussion. Describe a medically diagnosed person as “having” or “being” ADD or ADHD, whichever he or she prefers.

Autism

Treat Adults With Autism as Adults

It is important to note that Autism is a developmental disability and not a cognitive disability. While people with autism may have difficulty expressing themselves verbally, they do not necessarily have any cognitive or intellectual disability. Do not assume that a person with autism is intellectually incapable of understanding a conversation. As such, speak to adults with autism as you would to any adult without autism. Speak respectfully, avoiding patronizing, unnecessary, or familial terms of endearment. Speak directly to that person. Don’t talk about him or her as if he or she is not in the room. You would not appreciate being spoken to as if you were a child, and neither does a person with autism. 

Be Literal, Honest, and Patient

Figures of speech, euphemisms, slang, sarcasm, and other non-literal expressions are often confusing and difficult to understand for people with autism. Say exactly what you mean. Give the person time to understand what you’re saying and wait for a response if you’ve asked a question. Just because they haven’t answered immediately doesn’t mean they are ignoring you or haven’t understood. They may just need time to formulate an answer or response. If you are having a difficult time understanding the person, listen carefully and ask questions to clarify. The person with autism may unintentionally communicate inappropriately. Give him or her constructive, clear, and specific feedback in a non-judgemental way. Let them know their error, how they can correct it, and why it was inappropriate.

Down Syndrome

Words Can Hurt

Down Syndrome is not a disease or illness in any way. Describing it as such is both inaccurate and inappropriate. It is a genetic condition, and therefore cannot be “cured.” It should never be spoken of in that way, nor should those with Down Syndrome be said to “suffer from” be “afflicted by” the syndrome.

Emphasize body language

People with Down syndrome benefit from animated facial expressions. It grabs their attention and encourages them to watch your mouth, which helps their vocabulary skills. Visual cues like hand gestures also help them understand you especially if their vocabulary is still developing. Show that you’re pleased to be talking with them, and mirroring their responses can make them more interactive.

Mental Impairments

No Reason to Hide

Mental impairments like anxiety, depression, drug addictions, eating disorders, personality disorders, phobias, and the like are often referred to as “hidden” because they aren’t visually obvious. The term “hidden disability” can be offensive because it suggests that the person is trying actively to “hide” that disability as if it’s something to be ashamed of. Describe a mental impairment as “non-visible” or “non-apparent” instead.

People should not be described as “suffering from” or “victims of” mental health. Instead, use terms like “experiences,” “has a history of,” or “lives with.” If the person with a mental impairment is experiencing fewer symptoms, you can say that they are “in recovery,” especially when speaking of addiction.

Use Medical Terms Appropriately

Medical terms like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, alcoholism, depression, and the like should only be used when referring to actual medical diagnoses. Don’t use these terms to “self-diagnose,” jokingly or otherwise.

Consider the person

Taking the time to consider how a person with disabilities feels in a given situation can facilitate easier and more productive communication with and about people with disabilities. Most importantly,  consider the other person’s feelings, without make making unfounded assumptions. When Sue arrives at her new job, greet her like you would any new employee, including the usual “Let me know if you need anything!” If you’re unsure of the preferred terminology or way of communicating, just ask!

Not sure if someone needs help, knows that you’re there, or wants to have a conversation? Just ask. People with disabilities need the ability to choose how others speak to them what types of interactions they prefer. Being treated like everyone else is exactly what people with disabilities want. 

Need help developing an inclusive environment at your workplace? Contact us.

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Nina Overdorff

Nina comes to Onix with years of sales and marketing experience from a variety of industries, and holds a BS in Language Arts Education. Nina has a passion for words, storytelling, and information, which she believes everyone should have access to regardless of ability. After spending time as a teacher with a blind student, she became much more aware of the limitations and abilities of web accessibility, and how essential it is to those experiencing disabilities. “Being able to access information equally ensures that everyone has an equal opportunity for education, employment, and success in life.”