Disability Is Common and Diverse
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to one-quarter of adults in the United States have some type of disability. Disability can impact a person’s vision, movement, thinking, remembering, learning, communication, hearing, mental health, and social relationships, among others. Disability is generally defined in three dimensions: (1) impairment in a person’s body structure or function, (2) activity limitation, and (3) participation restrictions in everyday activities. Disability is a broad concept and is incredibly diverse—not just in the ways disabilities appear and who has them but also in how people feel about their disability.
This diversity in disability may lead to questions about how best to talk with our clients with disabilities while being respectful. When referring to anyone’s personal characteristics, the correct terminology is the terminology they identify with. If someone is willing to disclose their disability, it’s better to ask them how they do or do not want you to refer to their disability. Ask the person: How do you describe yourself, or How should I describe your disability? You should also never assume someone wants to disclose their disability. If someone does disclose their disability, it's also important to ask if it is okay to share that with someone else. You should not assume that if someone tells you about their disability or if their disability is visible, you can share that.
For example, if your colleague is deaf and prefers email communication, you should not share information about their disability when asking for email communication. “They prefer email communication” accomplishes the same goal as “Please email them because they are deaf” without unnecessary sharing. You should always ask yourself if the information about someone’s disability is relevant to the conversation. There is still a stigma around disabilities, and not every disability is necessarily visible.
People-First Language v. Identity-First Language
People-first language uses phrases like “people with disabilities,” which some view as more humanizing. This language centers on the person rather than an individual characteristic. Identity-first language uses phrases like “disabled people.” Some people still use this language and may prefer to place their identity first. It may also change based on the situation.
For instance, at a disability pride parade, it may be important for someone to center their disability, but when they are at work, they prefer their personhood to be centered. Again, this is a personal preference, and you should always defer to how someone wants to be identified rather than how you think they should be identified. An acknowledging statement may be appropriate, such as We recognize that some people prefer identity-first language (such as autistic adults). In contrast, others prefer person-first language (such as an adult with autism). We used person-first language in this brief after consulting our clients.
Ability-First v. Limitation-First
Another means of centering your communication around a person’s humanity is by not referring to the person by their limitation. Ability-first language puts the person’s ability before their limitations. Limitation-first language focuses on how the person is limited rather than their abilities.
For instance, saying a person “who uses a wheelchair” (ability-first) is more respectful and empowering than saying someone is “wheelchair-bound” (limitation-first). In the first option, you are referring to the person first and highlighting their ability to utilize a wheelchair. You may have a client that “uses an alternative form of communication,” like writing, rather than a “non-verbal” client. This is also true for psychiatric disabilities. You may be assisting a “client with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder” with a case, not your “bipolar client.” There are many more examples like this. Overall, describing someone’s ability and humanity rather than their limitation is likely preferable.
People with Disabilities Are Not Victims, Invalid, or Defective
Language that suggests someone is a passive receiver of something that was afflicted on them is dehumanizing. For instance, “people have had strokes,” but they are not “stroke victims.” A “person with a brain injury” is not “brain damaged.” The language you use can reiterate that a disability is a terrible thing that happened to that person. Likewise, a person with a disability is not “so incredibly brave and inspiring” for going about their daily lives. As advocate Stella Young explained in her TED Talk, “I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much.” “Inspiration porn” objectifies people with disabilities for the benefit of people without disabilities. Memes that show people with disabilities playing sports, smiling, or other activities with language like, “If they can do it, you can too,” imply that the person is overcoming some terrible deficiency.
Trying to talk around a person’s disability with made-up language can be demeaning, even if done with good intentions. Using phrases like “differently-abled” and “handi-capable” are often attempts to be kind in speech. However, it reinforces that “disability” is something to be ashamed of and something that we shouldn’t talk about.
This overview is not exhaustive, and you should not treat it as such. The key is to stay open to learning more. Standards change, but as long as you are willing to learn the “why” behind the change with humility, you will be helping to create a more inclusive practice for your clients and the legal community.