2.4 Using positive language to communicate with persons with disabilities

Negative attitudes and mistaken beliefs about disability can influence the language used to talk to or about people with disabilities and this also creates a communication barrier. Language is a powerful tool in any society. It can have a positive influence and make people feel valued, confident and included, or it can be negative and inconsiderate and cause hurt or offence, making someone feel rejected, belittled and excluded.

One important principle to remember for positive terminology is that the person comes first, not the disability. Another is not to assume that everyone with a disability is the same. Table 2.1 shows some of the inappropriate negative terms and acceptable positive terms that can be used when describing persons with disabilities.

Table 2.1 Positive and negative words to describe persons with disabilities (adapted from COWASH 2017).

Negative termsPositive terms
Disabled, handicapped, crippled, person who is physically challenged, deformed personPerson with a disability
Normal people, able-bodied, healthyPerson without a disability
Mentally handicapped, mentally retarded, mentally defective, mentally challenged, insane, crazyPerson with a mental health illness or disability
Wheelchair confined or boundPerson who uses a wheelchair; wheelchair user
The blindPerson with a visual Impairment; blind person
The deafPerson with a hearing impairment; deaf person
Mute/dumbPerson with a speech disability
  • Look at the two columns in Table 2.1. What do you notice is the main difference between them?

  • The positive terms all use the word ‘person’. The negative terms focus only on the disability; the person with the disability is generally ignored.

If you are talking to someone with a disability, you may need to make some adjustments to accommodate their needs. This will vary with different types of impairment. The important point is to treat them with the same respect you would for anyone else. Box 2.1 has a few tips that will help you positively interact with persons with disabilities in your community.

Box 2.1 Tips for talking to people with disabilities

  • Speak directly to the person rather than to their assistant, carer or interpreter, if they have one.
  • If you think they may need help, ask them first before you take any action.
  • Refer to a person’s disability only when it is related to what you are talking about.
  • Be careful to use positive words and phrases (see Table 2.1).
  • When talking about toilets or other facilities adapted for people with disabilities, use the term ‘accessible’ rather than ‘disabled’ or ‘handicapped.’
  • Don’t invade someone’s personal space by touching their wheelchair, crutches or cane; don’t take hold of the arm of a visually impaired person to guide them without asking if that’s what they would like you to do.
(Adapted from COWASH, 2017 and NYLN, 2006)

2.3.4 Communication barriers

2.5 Persons with disabilities in Ethiopia