Since I am going to be doing a lot of writing and translation on the subject, and dealing with specific case studies, I need to get my terminology right. I looked briefly at this when I analysed the work of Jim Ferris, but I wanted to make sure of a number of things. Although the terms ‘idiot’, ‘imbecile’ and ‘moron’ are now definitely pejorative, when Hine used them they were actually the medical terms used to describe adults with mental ages of < 2, 3-7, 8-12 respectively, while the term ‘feeble-minded’ was an umbrella term that referred to “[P]ersons who may be capable of earning a living under favourable circumstances, but are incapable from mental defect, existing from birth or from an early age: (1) of competing on equal terms with their normal fellows, or (2) of managing themselves and their affairs with ordinary prudence.” ‘Cretin’ was a term that came from the word Christian (through the French Chrétien), and therefore meant that the person still deserved to be treated with human dignity. These terms were all replaced by the term ‘mental retardation’, but by the 60s this had also attained pejorative connotations, and has been replaced by ‘mentally challenged’, ‘intellectually disabled’ or ‘developmentally disabled’ (which would then include other disorders such as CP and DS that do not come under the first 2 categories) while in the UK the term ‘learning difficulties’ has been adopted with some misgivings and is open to misinterpretation.

The term ‘developmentally disabled’ exactly covers the kinds of disabled people that I am working with, since they all developed their impairments very early in life.

According to the disability charity Scope these are the terms that are in and out:

What’s out
Affliction – An emotive term best avoided.
Confined to a wheelchair – The chair is a mobility aid, making the notion of confinement inappropriate.
Cripple – Strips individuals with mobility difficulties of their dignity.
person – Puts the condition before the person.
Diseased – Many disabilities, such as Cerebral Palsy and spinal cord injury, are conditions not caused by illness or disease.
Dumb – Through misuse has lost its original meaning. Preferred term is speech impaired.
Fit – An outdated way of describing a seizure.
Handicapped – Terms like this are negative or imply failure to reach a general stereotype of personal perfection.
Invalid – A negative term for a person with a disability that has become invalid itself.
Physically challenged – A poor attempt at politically correct terminology. While well meaning, it is patronising and can alienate people with disabilities.
Retarded – An outdated and demeaning description of a person with a disability.
Sick – People with a disability are not sick – they simply have a disability.
Spastic – Through misuse and misunderstanding, this term is considered archaic and is often applied aggressively and inappropriately. Preferred terminology is person with a disability.
Special – Patronising. All people are special and people with a disability should not be separated from the rest of the community.
Sufferer – One of the most commonly misused terms. People with a disability do not consider themselves to be sufferers. This term is negative and incorrectly implies a need for sympathy.
Vegetative – A more respectful and accurate way to describe this condition is the word “coma”.
Victim – Wrongly casts people with a disability as dependent and without hope.
bound – Focuses on the chair – which is just a mobility aid – rather than the person. More accurately, a person with a disability uses a wheelchair.

What’s in
Condition – Most people with a disability have a specific condition, and are certainly not diseased.
impaired – Someone who has difficulty with hearing.
disability – Preferred to the archaic and de-humanising term mental retardation.
Person with a disability – Considered to be more respectful because it identifies the person first rather than by their disability.
Seizure – Preferred over the outdated term fit.
Speech impaired – The most appropriate term to describe someone who has difficulty with speech.
Uses a wheelchair – Casts the wheelchair as a support tool and portrays the person as being in control.
Vision impaired – Used in preference to the generic term blind.

According to a UK government website:

The word ‘disabled’ is a description not a group of people. Use ‘disabled people’ not ‘the disabled’ as the collective term.

Avoid medical labels. They say little about people as individuals and tend to reinforce stereotypes of disabled people as ‘patients’ or unwell.

Avoid phrases like ‘suffers from’ which suggest discomfort, constant pain and a sense of hopelessness.

Wheelchair users may not view themselves as ‘confined to’ a wheelchair – try thinking of it as a mobility aid instead.

Something which I had not considered until I read some disability studies writing that considered disability in literature (especially in the work of Joseph Conrad, who seems to have used such metaphors quite frequently), the use of idioms and metaphors that describe a disability or its effects:

Common phrases that may associate impairments with negative things should be avoided, for example ‘deaf to our pleas’ or ‘blind drunk’.

And then there follows a whole list of words to avoid and use:

Avoid Use
(the) handicapped, (the) disabled disabled (people)
afflicted by, suffers from, victim of has [name of condition or impairment]
confined to a wheelchair, wheelchair-bound wheelchair user
mentally handicapped, mentally defective, retarded, subnormal with a learning disability (singular) with learning disabilities (plural)
cripple, invalid disabled person
spastic person with cerebral palsy
able-bodied non-disabled
mental patient, insane, mad person with a mental health condition
deaf and dumb; deaf mute deaf, user of British Sign Language (BSL), person with a hearing impairment
the blind people with visual impairments; blind people; blind and partially sighted people
an epileptic, diabetic, depressive, and so on person with epilepsy, diabetes, depression or someone who has epilepsy, diabetes, depression
dwarf; midget someone with restricted growth or short stature
fits, spells, attacks seizures

And finally there are some tips on behaviour:

  • use a normal tone of voice, don’t patronise or talk down
  • don’t be too precious or too politically correct – being super-sensitive to the right and wrong language and depictions will stop you doing anything
  • never attempt to speak or finish a sentence for the person you are talking to
  • address disabled people in the same way as you talk to everyone else
  • speak directly to a disabled person, even if they have an interpreter or companion with them

Well, this is the way I have been behaving anyway. At least I am now clear on the correct terminology to use – since most of the terms are the same according to both sources.

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