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  • Romney Miller

Words are Powerful

At INCIGHT, we believe in moving forward in a positive direction. We have found that oftentimes the words we use to talk or write about a person who experiences a disability are negative and can contribute to a deficit mindset. In fact, even the word disability means Not Able. Words are powerful; they have a history, carry meaning and can alter our way of thinking.

A phenomenon of language is that words and labels are constantly changing. Words that we say today will be taboo in a decade. The commonly used word ‘handicap,’ for example, has become an outdated term. The word origin is believed by some to refer to a scenario of a person who has a cap-in-hand and is begging for money. It can imply that people who are handicapped are unemployed and can only beg for income. Some connect it to sports where one player is given an advantage based on their ability to play. Which still encourages the idea of a need for charity. Yet, we hear the word used all the time to refer to parking spots, bathroom stalls, and handicap signage.

Recently, when speaking to a friend about writing this article, I explained to her the origin of the word handicap. She was surprised and said, “Oh my goodness, I never thought

about it and now I never want to use that word again!” While many people are not offended by the use of this word, when one understands the origin or history of the word, it's natural to look for a different word choice. Many of you have asked, But what words do we use? We are suggesting some positive word options for you below that em- phasize the person first, their ability and the need for accessibility.

Try using some of the suggested terminology, and don’t worry about making a mistake. Nobody is going to yell foul and give you a red card if you use the wrong word. Learn from the mistakes you make and find a better way to say what you mean. The best way to know exactly how you should talk about a specific disability is to ask the person what words they use to describe what they are experiencing.

One note of caution: nobody likes a Word Police Officer, or a person who takes it upon themselves to correct the word choices of others; simply lead by a positive example.


People First Language and More, Disability is Natural - https://www.disabilityisnatural.com/ people-first-language.html


Guidelines: How to Write and Report About People with Disabilities, and “Your Words, Our Image - https://rtcil.org/products-media


Mental Health Terminology: Words Matter and “Associated Press Style Book on Mental Illness- https://www.psychiatry.org/newsroom/reporting-on-mental-health-conditions




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