Using the right words

Michael Creurer

Using the right words

If your local news people are incorrectly describing people with disabilities it takes just a few minutes to send off a message like the one that I sent to our local newspaper. Reporters need to be educated as to how to correctly describe people with disabilities…it is their job. They should get it right. You can copy or use my letter as an outline if you want to contact your local news people.

January 19, 2002

From: Michael Creurer – Box 5664, Victoria, B.C. Tel: — —-

To: Letters to the Editor – Times Colonist, Box 300, Victoria, B.C.,V8W 2N4

Is using the right word important?

We communicate to describe people, situations and the events of their lives. The words that we choose to describe others can be empowering or denigrating. This article will address the use of correct language when discussing people with disabilities. Words used to describe people in this very broad group must be chosen to reflect their current physical or psychological situation. There are many words that are no longer politically correct or acceptable to people with disabilities. But they still get used because of lack of awareness. The correct use of words is very important when describing a person with a disability. 

One such word is “handicapped”. The term is ambiguous and very out of date. Although its use is pervasive, it is not acceptable. And, many people with disabilities that I have spoken with find the word offensive and derogatory. It seems that the use of this word is always taken to be synonymous with disability. But, if you read the following excerpt (used with permission from City of Sacramento ADA Information Home Page) you will notice that there is a very discernable difference in the meaning of the two words. 

Distinction between Disability & Handicap:

A Disability is a condition caused by an accident, trauma, genetics or disease, which may limit a person’s mobility, hearing, vision, speech or mental function. Some people with disabilities have one or more disabilities.

A Handicap is a physical or attitudinal constraint that is imposed upon a person, regardless of whether that person has a disability. Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines handicap as to put at a disadvantage. Writers note: poor access or no access into buildings for me using my scooter, is a handicap that puts me at a disadvantage. My disability itself is not a handicap.

A few other words no longer acceptable to describe a person with a disability include: crippled, invalid, confined to a wheelchair, victim, deaf mute, suffers from… or afflicted by. All of these words are demeaning and much too vague. They cannot properly describe a person’s situation. Someone using a wheelchair is not confined by it but able to experience independence and mobility with the use of it. Are there other words that are offensive to you? 

Hopefully this article will encourage you to not only examine your own use of words, but to encourage your family and friends to be equally aware. Members of the media, both television and print need to be reminded if they slip up and use inappropriate language in their reports. If you hear someone use the word handicapped, please point out that it is no longer appropriate. And, a person’s disability should be clarified: she is a person with multiple sclerosis, he is a person who had polio or he has a mental disability. Describing people in this manner identifies them as people first and their disability as secondary. The correct use of language portrays people with disabilities with the same respect that all Canadian citizens expect and deserve. Using the right words when describing people with disabilities will achieve just that. 

Michael Creurer 

Member of the physically disabled community

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