How do we describe disability?
(Episode 1.3)

Even though “disability” is a commonly accepted term, there are competing ideas on how we should use the word.

Why is there still disagreement and how does that relate to how we see and understand disability?

Labels are everywhere

Mom. Dad. Teacher. Doctor. Chef. Engineer.

These are just a few words that we use to describe people and how we see ourselves in the world. Even though many of us hate labels, they are still an important part of how we see ourselves and each other.

Most of us grew up knowing what words to use. But many of us are still confused about how to describe people with disabilities. Do we say “disabled” or “handicapped”? What about “crippled” or “retarded”?

There are so many words related to disability. Some of them are widely accepted, while others are seen as offensive or insulting. Which ones do we use?

In this chapter, we will look at how disability-related words are used and why there are so many ways to describe disability in the first place.

How the medical and social models affect the word “disability”

Since the social model has become more popular recently, people are relating the word “disability” to how society is built and formed. Since this is a shift that happened quickly, it created some debates on how the word “disability” should be used to describe people.

The two popular terms are “person with a disability” and “disabled person.” There is currently no worldwide agreement on which one is best to use, but there are solid arguments in favor of and against each one.

Knowing these two terms and the different meanings they have can be helpful. They are more than just terms – they are starting points to understand the experience of having a disability and the challenges that go along with it.

“Person with a disability”

In some countries, “person with a disability” is the preferred term. The idea is to put the person first and disability second. This applies to other situations too – terms like “person with autism” or “person with cerebral palsy,” just to name a few.

One of the biggest organizations to use this wording is UNICEF, which argues that by putting the person first, it becomes easier to focus on a person’s individuality and helps to promote positive values. In other words, it prevents people’s disabilities from overshadowing the person.

However, opponents have argued that it de-emphasizes the barriers that society creates for those with disabilities and reduces society’s responsibilities to make the world more disability-friendly – in other words, they see it as part of the medical model of disability.

“Disabled person”

The term “disabled person” is the more popular one in non-English speaking countries, as well as some places like the United Kingdom. The emphasis is on the disability, rather than the person.

The reason for this is to show how some people are “disabled” by the society around them. For example, if a city has no accessible public transport, then you can be “disabled” by it. Society is considered to be responsible for making solutions for those who need them, and getting rid of any manmade barriers that do not need to be there.

People who prefer this term see it as a form of the social model. However, some opponents claim that it encourages the stereotype that a disability is also the defining characteristic of a person, which goes against the social model.

Right now, there is no worldwide agreement on whether to use “person with a disability” or “disabled person.” Which term you use will depend on which meaning you want to convey or which ideology you believe in the most.

Other terms such as “the disabled”

One ongoing movement is trying to remove the article (“the”) in front of the term – examples include “the disabled,” “the blind,” “the Deaf” and so forth. Linguists have found that by adding “the” in front of a word, it makes it seem like the group is one big uniform mass, instead of a group made up of unique individuals.

This leads to “othering,” which is when a bigger group creates an “us vs. them” effect against a smaller group, instead of looking at everyone as equals. It also has the effect that you are talking only to people with no disabilities.

That is why there is growing support to avoid using “the disabled.” Disability is one of the most diverse topics in the world, with each group having different needs, values and concerns. To really understand it, we need to look at it from all angles and remember that one size does not fit all.


Many people are confused about how to label people with disabilities because the idea or understanding of the disability experience is still changing rapidly every year.

Even though the social model of disability is becoming widely accepted, there are still disagreements about whether to emphasize the person (“people with disabilities”) or society’s barriers (“disabled person”).

There is a struggle to find a word that fully describes the challenges of disability while highlighting people’s abilities and positive aspects. Unlike how the word “handicapped” came into being, the trick now is to find a word that people with disabilities can claim. It is not going to be a decision made by those with no disabilities.

For research sources for all of the information above, please download this lesson This download in in PDF format.

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