I get asked this often, perhaps because I’ve written about disability a little, and don’t have any visible disabilities myself, so it’s not embarrassing to ask me. So I thought it might be even less awkward to just leave this out here.
With this caveat. I AM NOT AN AUTHORITY ON THIS TOPIC. I’m just sharing what I’ve learnt, and it’s entirely possible that I get some things wrong. As a general guide, ask yourself this. How can I be more inclusive in my communication? How can I not be hurtful or exclude other people?*
Still with me? Okay then.
What are the correct terms for referring to disabilities?
First, ditch the euphemisms (like ‘specially abled,’ and ‘differently abled,’ ‘-challenged,’ ‘divyang’) or indications that a disability makes one less of a person (‘impaired’).
‘Specially-abled’ and its cousin, ‘differently abled’ rile many disabled people; it’s not, they say, that the ones without vision gain the ability to fly or that a spinal injury results in spidey sense.
The suffix ‘-challenged’ is as condescending, implying that all it takes to function in a world not designed for you is a bit of effort.
And what about ‘divyang,’ coined by our prime minister himself? A letter to the PM in January 2016 signed by 71 organisations and individuals asked that the term not be used. In that letter, and again in an open letter later that year, they said, “Invoking divinity will not lessen the stigma and discrimination that persons with disabilities have been historically subjected to and continue to encounter in their daily lives. […] We would like to reiterate that disability is not a divine gift. And the use of phrases like ‘divyang’ in no way ensures de-stigmatisation or an end to discrimination on grounds of disability.” (My friend Divyanshu, who among many other things, is a qualified paragliding pilot and runs a foundation that promotes inclusive adventure, says, “You call me divyang and I’ll SHOW you my divine body parts.”)
So, what CAN you say?
The general guideline is, put the personhood first, then, acknowledge the disability. For example, “People with visual disabilities” rather than “the visually impaired” or “visually challenged.” And it's generally a good idea to avoid “wheelchair-bound” which is a judgement, and go with “wheelchair user,” a statement of fact.
When it comes to public writing, most media house’s style guides will tell you to go with “person with disability” or “persons [or people] with disabilities.” Some also use the abbreviation PWDs if the term is being used repeatedly, but I don't like that, because it feels like another avoidance of acknowledging disability, though mild.
If it’s a stage event or a live online event, like say, introducing a person or a topic, go with person with disability, but best to ask the person. (And really, mentioning the disability is only relevant when the actual topic is disability or when the person’s disability clarifies something in your narrative.)
Yes, it may feel awkward, but ask. Think about how you like to be introduced formally; wouldn’t you prefer to be introduced on your terms? And those of you who have your names mispronounced often, isn’t it much nicer when an event host takes the time to check with you on how to say it right?
And there are other viewpoints too. Some people with hearing disabilities much prefer the term “Deaf” with a capital D. Divyanshu is perfectly fine with being called blind. Several friends who disabilities have no problems with the “-challenged” suffix.
One more. Tread very carefully when you want to say you find a disabled person inspirational. Many disabled people are totally fed up with that. “Inspiration porn,” they call it.
* On this last part, I wrote a piece in The Hindu a couple of years ago that focussed a bit more on the words we use when referring to mental illness and learning and intellectual disabilities.
And I’m adding here a comment from my friend Shilpa, which is about the terminology many neurodivergent people prefer, something I have only recently begun to educate myself on.
An important word on person-first language.
Agree with all of this, but many disabled people with genetic conditions see “put the person first” coming from an ableist perspective wherein a person with a disability or a difference is necessarily seen as “wrong” — where the benchmark is being “normal” or “right” — and the disability or difference pathologised.
Most autistic and neurodivergent people prefer identity-first language, in fact, since neurodivergence isn’t a piece of clothing that you can “take off,” so to speak, or “fix.” It very much makes you who you are: one is born neurodivergent, one will die neurodivergent. Which may or may not be the same as certain other disabilities, like someone who loses a limb in an accident, say. It’s similar to calling a LGBTQ person “person with gayness” or “person with homosexuality”; sounds incongruous, because it is.
That said, it’s always best to ask rather than to assume what language the disabled person prefers: identity-first, or person-first. There are no blanket rules here.