Sunday, May 20, 2012

‘Disability Terminology: A Starter Kit for Nondisabled People and the Media’

Here’s a great re-share of a share by Lynne Soraya: an introduction to disability terminology for nondisabled people and the media. Originally authored by S. E. Smith in 2010 at, Soraya posted a link on Twitter this week.

Logo: Blogging Against Disabilism
I thought it worth resharing because it corroborates my sentiments for the Blogging Against Disablism project on May 1: that as a woman on the autism spectrum who is also an editor, I consciously think about the edits I make for accurate, respectful portrayals of people with disabilities.

According to Smith, a lot of people struggle with disability terminology:
“People want to use the right word, but they’re not really sure what the right word is, and sometimes some very intriguing circumlocutions and euphemisms are employed in the service of trying to be respectful.
“I thought I’d write a very brief primer on some disability terminology in US English, to familiarise nondisabled readers with the language that has arisen as disability rights activists fight for the right to self identify, to resist ableist language, and to confront problematic framings of disability embedded in the way we talk about disability. The disability rights movement is much older than many people realise and from the start, people were tackling, confronting, and challenging language. Respectful language is already here; it’s been developed, refined, and used by people with disabilities for decades, it’s just disseminating to the general population very slowly.
“It’s important to remember here that self-identification trumps all—if you are talking to or about a particular person, please ask how that person identifies or would like to be referred to.”
In my post, I shared ways in which I self-identify, sometimes as “autistic” or “aspergian;” other times as a “woman on the autism spectrum” as I did above.

The situation I was reacting to with my blog did not involve people who self-identify; rather, it involved agencies that serve people with disabilities referring to them as “the disabled.” I thought these agencies, if anyone, would use the respectful language that Smith is talking about.

Here's what Smith says about using terms like “the disabled” or “the handicapped”:
“Pretty much, any ‘the [disability-as-a-collective-noun]‘ or ‘[person] is a [disability-as-noun]‘ framing is inadvisable. People are not their disabilities. Thus, ‘I worry about how this law will impact the d/Deaf community,’ not ‘I worry about how this law will impact the d/Deaf’ and ‘my cousin has bipolar disorder,’ not ‘my cousin is a bipolar.’”
It comes with this caveat:
“For some disabilities, some people may choose identify themselves with a disability-as-adjective framing, using disability as a facet of identity; ‘Ming is quadriplegic’ or ‘Francesca is autistic’ as opposed to ‘Ming has quadriplegia’ or ‘Francesca has autism.’ Not all people identify this way, and not all disabilities can be applied as adjectives in this way. It’s better, when possible, to mirror the language someone uses. If you know someone who identifies as ‘schizophrenic,’ for example, rather than as ‘a person with schizophrenia,’ you could say ‘my friend is schizophrenic.’ Err on the side of caution if you don’t know how someone self-identifies: ‘my friend has schizophrenia.’”
Smith also addresses the use of terms such as “wheelchair-bound/confined to a wheelchair,” “suffers from/is the victim of,” among what Smith terms the “worst hits” among terminology used by well-meaning people.

Read Smith’s complete post at My original post can be found at

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