There was some back and forth in the Toronto Star last week about outdated language in reference to people with disabilities. A column by Kathy English noted that former Ontario MPP Gary Malkowski, a long-time advocate for those who are deaf, took offence at a Star headline that used the phrase, “falls on deaf ears.” A subsequent letter to the editor noted that the writer, as a person who is blind, thought these phrases were also outdated and offensive: blind rage, blind drunk, robbed us blind, blind faith.

It’s true that many of us often don’t even notice the words and how they might be taken. Often people use terms that imply helplessness or evoke pity, such as “stricken with deafness” or “suffers from blindness.” I confess to having included in a newsletter article a line referring to someone as being “hearing impaired.” I was gently informed that the word “impaired” in American Sign Language implies intoxication; better to say “deaf” or “hard of hearing.”

While searching for guidelines, I can across numerous versions of these inclusive language tips (although I had a hard time finding a Canadian source!):

  • Put the person first, not the disability. For example, “students with a disability,” not “disabled students.”
  • When necessary, refer to the person’s specific disability. For example, “A person with cerebral palsy.”
  • Don’t use phrases like “suffers from,” stricken with” or “victim of;” people with disabilities aren’t necessarily suffering, nor do they wish to be seen as victims.
  • Don’t sweep everyone into categories, such as “the blind” or “the disabled.” People may have similar disabilities but they are all unique.
  • Don’t use expressions that imply restriction, such as “wheelchair-bound” or “confined to a wheelchair.” A wheelchair is an aid to mobility, not an anchor! Why not say “uses a wheelchair,” if it’s really relevant at all?

In general, if the words we use to describe someone with a disability are negative, they reflect and reinforce negative attitudes. Don’t do it.