“The D-word”: how the language evolves around disability-related topics

We are fortunate to live in an era when the diversity of human lives and experiences is gaining momentum, is widely developed, discussed, and addressed. It is slowly but surely making its way into all corners of society, both in online and offline reality.

Despite that, disability is still one of the most delicate flowers out there in that regard, around which the public treads with caution. It becomes clear which words are definitely out of the picture, e.g. “lame”, “crippled”, “retarded”, “disadvantaged”, “less fortunate” and “exotic”. Being aware of these verbal “guidelines” are fairly and clearly marking a no-go zone. Yet, the language which promotes inclusion, empowerment, and diversity has not been developed just as well. Fear exists around addressing the topic “wrongly”: it is not in the innate human nature to use abusive language and is something most of us wish to avoid.

So, what language should we use?

In the 20th century, the novel word “handicapped” came into use and had its rise and fall. By the 70-s and 80-s, it was majorly replaced by the word “disability”. That’s where we are at. Now, we have out-ruled “handicapped”, and find that the definition of “dis” is “to have a primitive, negative or reversing force”, and we are not cool with that anymore in 2020.

From the words of persons with disabilities themselves, opinions on this matter widely vary. Some claim that they wish not to be “dissed”, and that their lives are not less full or less able than those of persons without disabilities. However, some claim that they indeed have a disability and see it objective terminology and feel not any resentment towards it. This point makes it clear that the words we use should be thought of in every single conversation separately, accepted terms may vary from person to person and must be openly and respectfully considered.

While the d-word still conveys the meaning, it does not support the modern celebratory sentiment of the whole range of human variation. Is it time to stop using the word “disability” then? Does a descriptive word, free from bias, negative and disempowering connotation, actually exist?

The answer is simply not yet. But it is well necessary to keep the following thought in mind: when attitudes change, words change; not the other way around. Feel free to use and experiment with phrases such as alternately-abled, differently-abled, and other clumsy but perhaps better-sounding terms for the time being.

It may be necessary that we as a society in a current moment work more on the very attitudes towards disability and live to see the further evolution in the language used to describe all range of human variation in an empowering, respectful and considerate manner.

Suurin osa Showcasen blogeista on toteutettu osana Laurean opintojaksoja. Koko koulutustarjontaamme voi tutustua nettisivuillamme. Tarjoamme kymmenien tutkintoon johtavien koulutuksien lisäksi myös paljon täydennys- ja erikoistumiskoulutuksia sekä yksittäisiä opintojaksoja avoimen AMK:n kautta!

4 ajatusta aiheesta ““The D-word”: how the language evolves around disability-related topics”

  1. Even though derailing a bit, this brought in mind a discussion I witnessed recently in Jodel. Original poster wrote something along: ‘a Tinder match unmatched me because they thought I were a transgender. ‘ OP (a cisgender) uses she/her pronouns and had stated so in their Instagram bio, so the match messaged them saying: ‘Didn’t know you were one’ and unmatched them. In the post, she and others argued that cisgendered should star adding pronouns to bio’s. The whole thing, in that case, would be familiarised and it would also open a safe space to talk about pronouns and it also lets those who use different pronouns to share theirs without being the odd one out.

    Returning back to your post: it’s true. Sometimes I stumble quite seriously with the right words, but I recognise my mistakes and that’s a sign of a healthy person, or so I’ve heard. 🙂 For today’s society, let’s say even if we’re slowly progressing in the right direction, we still have a lot to learn. The biggest heretics do not care about the thoughts of us, the greatly civilized.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment Hannele. The more I read on this topic, the more I see the message brought by people with disability: it is not all that terrible to make mistakes or make a ridiculous comment without intention, because it is common and understandable for them; but it is the sensitivity with which you make a mistake and eagerly correct yourself if you did so, which really promotes inclusion and makes them feel heard and respected. Have a laugh and do not make the same mistake twice, in the best way said. So, I suppose, as long as we carry on with humility to ourselves, open-minded and humble approach to others, we are on our way to becoming better and better allies for people with disabilities.

      1. So I began to think deeper. When talking about an encounter, it is important to remember that it is always a human event. It can be said that encounter occurs only through humanity. When different personalities, life experiences, opinions and born perceptions, etc. come into contact with each other, a state of genuine encounter is created. I don’t think this will happen if the parties to the interaction are not willing to share as well as receive – although this is difficult to do when arguing. Unfortunately, I rarely follow my own advice in this, because sometimes there are things I just can’t internalize, you know?

        When people exchange meanings and feelings with each other, we talk about interaction. We give each other recognition and we also get it back, allowing us to build through other people and interaction at the same time. The moment should not be too busy and scheduled that there is not enough time for the interaction to emerge. Genuine human interaction does not happen by itself; all communication and relationship building skills are part of the interaction skills. However, if the interaction in the community does not work, it undermines productive work and shakes the foundation of the whole community. This is why it is very important to create a confidential, open and respectful culture of interaction in the community. All people are different and therefore communicate differently, so the work community must follow the rules of conduct that prevail there in order for the interaction to be as smooth as possible.

        It would be desirable for the society to pursue a culture of dialogue that can only emerge through a dialogue approach. I think back to the dialog course and about the Timeout-conversation cards that we could use if one would like to go further with this (as I have with this comment, taking this into new spheres, heh…).

        My main point, probably, is that the nature of communication is characterised by reciprocity: it consists of the messages that are sent and received. Both the recipient and the sender of the message act simultaneously and alternately in the situation, alternating roles. Because the communication is reciprocal, the problem becomes common if the other party has problems in either sending or receiving the message. The answer to the problem can be found by thinking together and looking for new means of communication.

        At least, I think that was my main point. I kind of derailed again, but the subject in itself interested me so I began to think about a deeper meaning to this.

        Thank you for making me think!

  2. Describing a person with disabilities as exotic is definetly a new thing for me 😀 People really use that word? gosh … 😀 This is a topic I am very self-conscious about. I’m always scared of using the word term and accidentally offending someone.
    Thanks for this informative post! 🙂