"Terminology: What Should You Call a Person With a Disability?
By Yoji Cole

What's in a name? Or, better yet, what's in a term? To people with disabilities, using improper terminology can be as insulting as deliberately mispronouncing their names.

"Everyone should strive to make sure they're using the appropriate terminology because it makes a difference in terms of stigma and how the world views people with disabilities," says Curt Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network.

Stigma, prejudice and stereotypes are a three-headed monster that makes it too easy to see a person's difference negatively rather than positively. People with disabilities are stigmatized or labeled as not being able to accomplish as much as someone who does not have a disability, which leads to prejudice against hiring people with disabilities. The label couldn't be further from the truth: According to facts culled by the United Nations, people with disabilities in the U.S. work force have higher retention rates, equal or higher performance ratings, and less absenteeism or lateness than workers without disabilities.

To help head off such stereotypes, employers must be hyper-aware of ensuring that their employees know the proper way to refer to people in all underrepresented groups, such as people with disabilities.

When speaking about a person with a disability, "you should always refer to the person first," and not the disability, says Decker. Don't refer to a person with a disability as "that disabled person" or "that blind woman" or "that amputee." Instead, say, for example, "that person who is blind."

By putting the "person" before the disability, the disability does not define the person, says Nancy Starnes, chairman and president of the National Organization on Disability.

When referencing a person who has a disability, start with the phrase "People with …" because saying "people with a disability" or "people with a hearing impairment" implies that they are not being defined solely by their disability.

Starnes notes there are 54 million Americans who have a disability, many of whom have hidden disabilities. In a corporate setting where a person's background or current state in life is not always known, it is best to use the proper terminology and phrasing to ensure people do not misconstrue what is being said.

Respect is shown by referring to people in the manner in which they want to be referred, especially when referencing a traditionally underrepresented group. People with disabilities are also extremely diverse, representing every racial, ethnic and gender group. Because people with disabilities are not monolithic, each individual might have a different idea of how he or she wants his or her disability referenced.

Within the blind community, for example, some people prefer the term "visually impaired" or "a person with a visual impairment." But the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) says people who cannot see should simply call themselves blind.

"It's not something to be ashamed of," says Chris Danielsen, public-relations specialist for NFB.

NFB reasons that when a blind person does not want to be called blind, the word and physical state of not being able to see is enveloped in a negative connotation. Using euphemisms for a state of being that "means nothing more or less than … not being able to see with your eyes … makes the negative connotations associated with being blind worse," says Danielsen. "A lot of people want to use 'visually impaired,' but we believe that is unnecessary."

Decker points out that terms and labels come and go as a community's power develops and people become more aware of the community and its issues.

"Modernism comes along and terms once acceptable are not acceptable," says Decker. "The general public must stay on top of the most appropriate name. For example, we used to say 'mental retardation,' but we're now using 'developmental disabilities.'"


Starnes remembers when terms "handicapped," "handi-abled," and differently abled" were in use.

"The term 'people with disabilities' is probably the safest because it is incorporated into the civil-rights legislation that covers people with disabilities," says Starnes. "But that doesn't mean every person you meet will be happy with the term."

People who want to be safe and sensitive should simply ask a person with a disability what terminology makes them most comfortable when their disability is being referenced, adds Starnes.

"So if you know someone has a disability, ask, 'How do I describe your disability or address you when talking about your disability?' You'll get a number of different answers," says Starnes, but you will know how to best represent your friend, family member or coworker who has a disability.