About 1.3 billion people in the world are living with disabilities. The number grows when considering people who are temporarily disabled due to injury. In Kenya, about 2.2% of people are living with disabilities. With the growing visibility of people with disability in media and more awareness, abled people do not know how to communicate or interact with them. Talking about disability has been taboo for most, and the stigma facing people with disabilities can make open communication even more difficult.
Terms that were previously used to refer to certain conditions are no longer politically correct. People may be unaware of how inappropriate they are, but even speaking with kindness using those terms doesn’t negate the impact of such language.
How to talk about people with disabilities
With how perceptions and standards have changed, there are now basic guidelines on talking about disabilities and people living with them. Not mentioning them at all may seem safe, but this perpetuates the stigma around disability.
Emily Ladau, a disability rights activist, calls for demystifying disability. She also cautions against speaking for a group of people with their own voices. The term “disability” is also not fully accepted by everyone. Some refer to them as differently abled, a term to which some people with disabilities have objected.
When communicating broadly, only refer to the disability, if necessary, to what you’re talking about. If you’re speaking about someone specific, confirm with them or their kin how they would prefer to be described.
Don’t use made-up terms like “handicapable” or “diversability” unless used by an organisation. Use words like condition to refer to any illness or disorder, especially when you aren’t certain of the medical nature of someone’s disability.
How to refer to different types of disabilities
1. Sensory disabilities
People who are deaf prefer to be referred to as deaf or hard of hearing. Some object to the term hearing impaired. It’s always preferable to ask what term they prefer when writing about them. Those in the deaf community also don’t see themselves as sick or seeking a cure. They are a minority that uses sign language, which most countries recognise as a national language.
Blindness is a condition where people have limited or no vision. When referring to people who are blind, you can use legally blind for those with almost complete loss of vision. Terms like “partial sight”, “partial blindness” or “poor vision” are no longer used. Visually impaired is often objected to because an impairment sounds like blindness is a deficiency.
2. Physical disabilities
These conditions make a person experience limitations in moving, stamina, and physical function. Sometimes, people can’t walk or can only walk briefly. If they do walk, they need a walker or a cane to help them. It’s incorrect to use terms like “crippled” or “lame”.
People with disabilities who can’t move are referred to as immobile. When talking about the equipment they use to get around, you can say, “Someone who uses a can”, or “Someone who uses a wheelchair”. Don’t use terms like “wheelchair bound” or “confined to a wheelchair”. Contrary to popular belief, wheelchairs and mobility assistance devices help people with disabilities move around better.
Someone who had a limb surgically removed can be referred to as an “amputee,” but some people don’t like that usage. You can also say, “Someone with an amputation.”
3. Developmental/Neurological conditions
Various conditions affect people, such as they can’t speak or have difficulty learning. The condition where people can experience difficulty speaking is dysarthria or mutism. The word “dumb” is no longer used because it implies that people who can’t speak cannot communicate. Some people also object to the word “mute”, but others prefer “people with mutism” or “people who are mute”.
Dyslexia is a learning disability where someone has trouble differentiating letters when reading. They also have challenges matching speech sounds to their corresponding letters. When referring to people with dyslexia, some prefer that, and others prefer to be described as dyslexic. However, you must ensure you don’t use the descriptor “dyslexic” as a pejorative.
Down syndrome is a congenital condition caused by an extra full or partial copy of chromosome 21 in cell nuclei. It can also be referred to as an intellectual disability or cognitive disability.
Cerebral palsy is a group of neurological conditions affecting body movement and muscle coordination from birth to infancy. It is ok to describe someone with this condition as “someone with cerebral palsy” or “someone with spastic cerebral palsy”. It’s not acceptable to refer to them as spastic or spaz. The term “spaz” is also considered offensive when referring to someone with shaky or jerky movements. Beyonce and Lizzo removed the word from lyrics in their songs released in 2022.
4. Behavioural/emotional conditions
This includes conditions like addiction, autism, or autism spectrum disorder. When referring to conditions, it’s best to use terms like people with addiction. Some people with autism prefer that or to be referred to as autistic. The term Asperger’s Syndrome is no longer used. It is now classified under Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Read also: Learning Disabilities: Different Types And Signs
Avoid using outdated terms. It’s best to look up what is now acceptable using disability resources such as websites or books by people with disabilities. In addition, avoid words with negative connotations. If someone has a brain injury that left them without cognitive function, don’t say “brain damaged”, say “traumatic brain injury” or “someone with a brain injury”.
Some conditions are also debated whether they’re actually disabilities. Dwarfism and albinism are contested. However, people with dwarfism prefer the term dwarf in a medical sense or little people. The terms midget or vertically challenged are unacceptable. People with albinism may sometimes prefer to be called albino, but the former may be a better choice.
When referring to people with disabilities or conditions that limit function, don’t say, “suffer from” or “afflicted with”. A good rule of thumb is to look up the updated medical term for the condition and then refer to anyone with it as “Person with …”. Ableism is when able-bodied people refer to people with disabilities as lesser than or denigrate them. Ableism may not always be deliberate, but learning the correct language to refer to people with disabilities is the first step in creating a safer and more inclusive society.
What to avoid when meeting people with disabilities
To be better equipped in communicating and avoid ableism or awkwardness, follow these guidelines.
Avoid staring. It makes everyone uncomfortable and makes those being watched feel like a show. If you want to approach them, be polite. Don’t set your focus on any visible injury or scarring.
Make eye contact. Don’t look at the equipment they may be using, such as a cane or a wheelchair. Don’t look at everything else while avoiding their face. Looking someone in the eyes is courteous and respectful.
Don’t pat people who use mobility scooters, walkers, or wheelchairs on the head. Don’t hug them or provide them with comfort. Avoid touching them until you get to know them better. Don’t speak to them with pity. Avoid making patronising comments like how lucky they are that they can still move around. Or that they should be grateful they are alive. That can be offensive.
When talking with people who have companions, don’t talk around them and only talk with their companions. Many people with disabilities get frustrated when a stranger only talks with an abled person and completely ignores them.
Curiosity isn’t bad, but don’t ask someone what caused their disability the first time you meet them. If they’re a stranger you want to chat with, don’t bring up their condition. Talk with them about normal stuff like the weather.
Don’t make assumptions about their livelihoods. Many people with disabilities have attended school and have jobs just like everyone. If they make jokes about their own condition, don’t tell them off.
If you’re with a child who makes an inappropriate comment or stares, don’t yell at them and tell them off. The best practice is to teach them about people different from what they have seen. Introducing them to child-friendly media about people of different ethnicities or backgrounds will teach them how to interact with others in a healthy way. If they act inappropriately in public, talk to them calmly; if the stranger is receptive, let them greet each other. Children also imitate the adults around them.
Don’t make offers of prayer. Not every person with a disability shares the same religion as you. Associating disability with a lack of prayer or salvation is unhelpful.
The golden rule applies to how we treat everyone. But sometimes, extra care is needed to ensure no hurt or offence.
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