disability q&a how to talk about disability at optimist jenna dot com

Disability Q&A: How to Talk About Disability

Many people don’t know how to talk about disability. It’s confusing. Maybe even a little scary.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. If we avoid disability, then we risk avoiding disabled people. And that’s the last thing disabled people need. If we hide from this, then we aren’t helping or making things better. Instead, disabled people get pushed farther to the side.

So, what do we do? We need to listen and learn.

I get that it’s not easy. So, I’m here to help. This guide will help you learn the basics

Why Don’t We Talk About Disability?

So many people are afraid to talk about disability. There are several reasons.

Humans are Vulnerable. Scary!

First, some people fear disability. For example, if you see someone in a wheelchair, it may remind you that your body is fragile. Someday, you could grow old and become disabled. Or an accident could change your life forever. That thought might scare you. You don’t know what to say or do. So, you avoid it.

But when we shut out these thoughts, we shut out disabled people. Disabled people didn’t become disabled to make you think about ageing or mortality. Instead, that wheelchair user is just chilling. Or maybe they’re trying to talk about barriers in their way. They need someone to listen.

Not Understanding It

Second, humans tend to fear the unknown. Why is that autistic person rocking back and forth? What is that deaf person saying with their hands? If you hang out with them, could you “catch” what they have? And if disabled people live hard lives of stigma and exclusion, what if they are mad at us?

That fear also affects the workplace. If you hire a disabled worker, then what would that involve? How much would accommodations cost?* What if they get upset and sue? These fears stop employers from taking a chance on disabled workers.

*Often? $0.


Even if you’re not disabled, you probably know life can be hard for disabled people. The world isn’t accessible. Bullies and ignorant people say awful things. And the world excludes disabled people for no good reason.

So, you feel sad or awkward. Your life is good and maybe theirs isn’t. Have you helped? Maybe not. You feel bad, so you avoid the subject and you avoid the people.

Sensitive Questions

asking is better than assuming regarding disability by optimist Jenna
Assumptions hurt, but polite questions often don’t. (Instagram)

Finally, some people worry about saying the wrong thing. Thirty years ago, the word “mental r*tardation” was the correct term. But today, it’s deeply offensive. If you’re new to disability, then you might not know the right words. What if you hurt their feelings?

It’s OK to have these thoughts. It shows that you care. But you shouldn’t let them stop you from reaching out.

Here’s what the autistic person in my family says about this fear:

I get wanting to be kind. Kindness is important. Part of kindness is seeing my humanity. I would rather you ask me questions than have you assume something bad about me. You can ask me nicely. If you stumble a little while trying, I can forgive you. Trying is better than pretending I am not here.

(Do you still wish you had a guide to the right and wrong words? Keep reading!)

What Should We Do Instead?

Stop hiding. Check out books, social media, and blogs by disabled people. If a disabled person talks about their lives, then listen. And find a way to ask questions if needed.

It’s usually OK to say, “I’m not sure about the right words, but could I ask you a question about this?” If they don’t want to talk about it, then they can tell you. But maybe they’re happy to help you learn. In fact, they might appreciate having someone listen.

And if you’re too shy? Google is always there for you! Lots of disabled people write blogs that will tell you all about it.

The more you learn, the less you fear. Then you can help more.

If I Talk About Disability, How Do I Avoid Saying the Wrong Words?

It feels daunting to talk about a sensitive topic like disability. How do you know what to say?

Here’s a short list of words you can use.

  • Ableism: Bias and discrimination against disabled people.
  • Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC): Tools to say things without speech. For example, sign language, letter boards, and certain apps are AAC.
  • Barrier: Something that gets in the way. For example, a broken elevator is a barrier.
  • Euphemism treadmill: The process by which words turn into insults. For example, “moron” used to be a medical term. But people used it as an insult, so then we invented the word “r*tarded,” which people turned into an even worse insult. Fun, right?
  • Disabled person/person with a disability: Both these phrases work. We’ll talk more about it soon.
  • Neurodivergent: Someone with a brain-related difference like autism, dyslexia, or mental illness.
  • Neurodiversity: The diversity of human minds.

Familiar Words

You probably know these words:

  • Accessibility/accessibile
  • Caregiver
  • Hard of hearing
  • Inclusion
  • Intellectual/developmental disability
  • Little person/person with dwarfism
  • Learning disability
  • Mobility aid
  • Non-disabled
  • Prosthetic
  • Service animal
  • Visually impaired

Lots of disabled people use these words.

Skip these words:

“Special” needs? Really?

(Note: this includes examples of offensive words.)

  • Afflicted/sufferer/victim: These words make disabled people sound powerless. Instead, keep it simple. Just say what they “have.”
  • Confined to a wheelchair/wheelchair-bound: Having a wheelchair is a lot better than needing one but not having one. Without it, life would stink. A good wheelchair is freeing.
  • Handicapped: A word with a unique history that turned negative. It sounds like a beggar with a cap in hand. “Disabled” is fine.
  • Hearing impaired: Deaf people often think this feels negative. Instead, say “hard of hearing.”
  • High/low functioning: These labels often ignore someone’s needs or skills. Instead of shorthand, be specific. For example, try “she can’t speak” or “she writes great code.” After all, both can be true of the same person.
  • Normal/healthy: Say “non-disabled” for non-disabled people. Disabled people can be normal and healthy.
  • Overcame disability: You can be both successful and disabled. If someone did well at something, then that doesn’t mean they are “cured.” They still need an accessible world.
  • Special needs: This cutesy word comes with stigma. Also, disabled people don’t have “special needs.” Instead, they’re human needs that society won’t meet.
  • Cripple/crippled, defective, gimp, r*tard/-tard, lame, midget, nutcase, spaz: These are rude.

If you’re not sure about a word, then you can look it up online.

People say to use person-first language. So, why does “person with deafness” sound wrong?

Maybe you saw it on a poster or website somewhere: “Always put the person first!” You say “person with Down syndrome,” not “Down syndrome person,” after all.

So, why does it sound weird if I say “person with deafness?”

Let’s talk about who likes and doesn’t like person-first language.

Person First

Often, we use person-first language for diseases and temporary things. Someone has the flu. They’re not a “flu person.”

It’s like when someone says, “I have epilepsy, but it doesn’t have me.”

They may have made peace with having it. But they want to remind people that they’re more than that. So, they put the word “person” first. Or they say they “have” something. It’s how they fight stigma.

People with intellectual/developmental disabilities and people with illnesses often prefer this wording.

Identity First

autistic is not a dirty word. it's just a fact about people's brains
Some people want to destigmatize a label. (Instagram)

This is the way we talk about most things in life. For example, I am a geeky woman, not a “human with geekiness, femaleness, and adultness.” Messy, right? We talk plainly about most traits. They’re normal and we don’t need to distance ourselves.

Many deaf, blind, and autistic people prefer this wording. They fight the idea that their disabilities are shameful. To them, it’s who they are and how they see the world.

That’s why we say “deaf person” instead of “person with deafness.” It respects how they see themselves.

Which One?

How do you know the right one to use? Some communities are clear. Others are not.

If you want to know what a single person likes, then ask them. And if you want to know about a community I didn’t mention, just check online! Many disabled people write about what they prefer.

How Can I Make a Difference When I Talk About Disability?

The number one way to help disabled people is to listen and pay attention.

The world might have you believe that disabled people hide away at home all the time. But that’s not true. Many disabled people write things, post on social media, and *gasp* go outside sometimes.

People talk about disability all the time. Will you listen?

If you want to help, then here are some things you can do:

  • Follow a few interesting disabled people on social media
  • Check out and follow some cool disability blogs (like mine, maybe?)
  • Try books, movies, and TV shows written by disabled people
  • Click on news headlines about disability and think critically

There’s a lot to learn and listen to out there. Start paying attention. When you do, you learn to become a better ally. And that can make a difference.

This is part of my “Disability Q&A” series in which I answer common questions about disability. I post these for my workplace and share them on my blog. If you have questions, you can share them, and I may answer them in a future post!

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