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Knowing Proper Disability Language Can Help Reduce Stigma

Proper language eases the conversation, making it simpler to find solutions.

Key points

  • Recently, "identity-first language" has become popular—for example, “I am disabled,” implying membership in a community.
  • Language is personal and reflective of our own experiences and feelings about our disability, so there is no one-size-fits-all answer.
  • Without proper vocabulary, people may be reticent to discuss disability because they feel uncomfortable or nervous about offending someone.

In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet famously asks, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” She wonders how the name someone has can define them, rather than the characteristics of the person instead. This seems logical enough—a name is just shorthand for describing an actual object or state of being—but when it comes to disability, a name can take on significant meaning.

 Ameen Fahmy/Unsplash
Source: Ameen Fahmy/Unsplash

The language of disability is constantly evolving.

Historically, disability was discussed within a medical model. Doctors discussed people’s inability to do something that a “normal” body could do—whether that was walk, hear, see, or whatever. It was a “dis” ability, “dis” meaning apart or asunder in Latin. Sometimes derogatory words like “crippled” or “retarded” were used, perhaps from a lack of understanding. People with hearing loss may have been called “deaf and dumb,” especially if they had trouble with speech. The term “hearing-impaired” also reflects a medical model mentality.

The medical model transitioned into person-first language as in “a person with a disability” or “a person with hearing loss,” stressing that the person comes first and the disability second. This is the type of language I typically use when I talk or write about myself. This wording is often used in public documents, on Web sites, and by hearing-loss organizations because it is respectful, but it can be wordy and cumbersome to use.

Recently, identity-first language has become popular—for example, “I am disabled.” This assumes that the person part is a given and implies membership in a community of others with that same disability. Many people feel empowered when using this type of language.

For hearing loss, identity-first language is complicated by the Deaf community, which has defined Deafness to include using sign language to communicate. For “deaf” people who don’t sign or who aren’t culturally deaf, the word doesn’t seem to fit, leaving us without a one-word descriptor that reflects our state of being.

What you call yourself may change as your feelings shift.

Our own use of language may change over time as we become more accepting of our disability. Often the path goes through the medical model, to person-first, and finally into identity-first, as we discover a community of others like us. Seeing all the wonderful things that people with similar challenges to you have accomplished can be inspiring and jumpstart confidence in your own abilities.

This is definitely true for me. Before I came out of my hearing loss closet, I referred to hearing loss only when absolutely necessary, saying something like “I don’t hear well.” Now I typically say, “I have a hearing loss,” or “I wear hearing aids.” Occasionally, if I want to have more impact, I will say “I’m a little bit deaf.” That really gets people’s attention, perhaps because deafness is seen as more serious. Because of the cultural associations of using the word deaf (Deaf), I find it difficult to use the term regularly—primarily, because I don’t want to give a false impression that I use sign language.

Language is personal and reflective of our own experiences and feelings about our disability, so there is no one-size-fits-all answer.

Having proper language to use reduces stigma and fear.

Evolution in language makes it challenging to know what to say sometimes. But without the proper vocabulary, people are often reticent to discuss disability because they feel uncomfortable or nervous about offending someone. This lack of conversation makes disability a stigmatized unmentionable. When people know the right words to use, it makes it easier to have a talk about disability, which in turn makes it simpler to create workarounds when needed and to provide a more inclusive environment.

Copyright: Living With Hearing Loss/Shari Eberts. Reprinted with permission.

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