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Use of language

Representation matters.

Every person’s relationship to disability, or how someone “identifies”, is highly personal. The purpose of this equitable language primer is to provide guidance and context to the campus community and enable an informed discussion when writing or speaking about disability in order to move towards language choices that promote inclusivity. When possible, the best practice is always to refer to individuals according to their expressed preferences.

In partnership with the Disability Access and Inclusion Advisory Group, the Office of the ADA Coordinator provides guidance below on the use of disability language.

Disability as a Concept: Different Definitions Flow from Different Perspectives

There are numerous definitions of disability circulating both within and outside of the U.S. today. This multitude of definitions reflects the many stakeholder groups invested in defining and understanding disability for their specific purposes. For example, government agencies tasked with administering financial benefits define disability according to one’s ability to work; public health officials use a different definition of disability to monitor population health; and civil rights groups define disability as a class of people needing legal protections to counter long-term, systemic discrimination.

Civil Rights Definition

The University of Washington relies on the definition of disability embedded in civil rights legislation, from which it draws authority to intervene to maintain compliance with federal and state law. This legislation defines disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. Major life activities include, but are not limited to: walking, talking, hearing, seeing, breathing, learning, performing manual tasks, and caring for oneself. There are three components to this definition:

  1. Presence of a physical, cognitive, intellectual, psychiatric, sensory, or psychosocial condition or combination of conditions,
  2. Pervasive or perceived impairment in social and/or occupational functioning as a result of the condition,
  3. Individuals with these conditions have historically been and continue to be the target of prejudice, discrimination, stigma, and reduced opportunities.

The civil rights definition of disability intentionally includes a broad range of impairments and functional differences that have historically been the subject of discrimination and thus includes members of communities that may not identify with the label of “disability,” such as members of the Deaf community who regard themselves as a linguistic and cultural minority. Our use of the civil right definition of disability is not intended to impose a particular cultural identity on anyone.

Deficit vs Diversity Perspectives

While the UW adopts the civil rights definition of disability, it interprets and applies that definition from a diversity, rather than deficit, perspective.

A deficit perspective of disability equates non typical ways of being with having something ‘wrong’ with a person, such as a ‘broken’ body or mind that requires fixing. In academic circles, this perspective is exemplified by the “Medical / Individual Model” of disability. This model pathologizes cognitive, intellectual, and bodily differences, arguing that treatments and programs should aim to make people with disabilities look and behave like non-disabled people and measures should always be taken to prevent disability. For many disabled people, such as members of the Deaf community as one example, this negative and rigid perspective of disability can be highly offensive.

A diversity perspective of disability views difference and variation in functioning as naturally occurring and expected. This perspective values the range of insights, innovation, and resilience that often comes from diverse life experiences. This perspective is most associated with the “Social Model” of disability. The Social Model was developed as a direct counter to deficit-based views of disability, highlighting barriers in built and social environments that contribute to disablement. A diversity perspective of disability does not reject medical or technical intervention to enable disabled people to function to the maximum of their capacity; however, this approach refrains from claiming there is any one superior way to look, sound, move, learn, think, or be.

Identifying Disability in Language

There are two prevalent ways that we identify with disability in language: person‐first and identity‐first. Both options have implications for how we think about disability.

Person‐first language emerged in the 1970s to counter dehumanizing and demeaning language commonly used to describe people with disabilities, particularly those with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Recognizing that the language we use shapes how we and those around us think, many professions adopted person-first language as a way of asserting that individuals with disabilities are indeed people first and foremost, as well as to discourage the tendency to reduce individuals to only their impairment (preventing, for example, statements such as “the wheelchair people go over there.”) This phrasing intends to distance the person from the disability, ostensibly to separate the person from the negative connotations and stigma with which we have all been socialized. Many professions today continue to teach that person‐first language is preferable, and some disabled individuals prefer this language, based on their personal orientation to disability.

  • Example: I am a woman with a disability. I am separate from the stereotypes and stigma you associate with disability.

Identity‐first language emerged more recently and largely in conjunction with the Disability Justice movement that encourages people to integrate all of their identities – including the experience of disability – into their whole selves. People who choose to use identity first language often regard their difference as a key part of who they are, such as individuals who describe themselves as “autistic” rather than as “a person with autism.” This language challenges negative connotations of and may even assert pride in their difference by claiming disability directly. In academic settings, identity‐first language frequently signals a diversity perspective, emphasizing the role of inaccessible or oppressive systems, structures, or environments in disabling certain individuals.

  • Example: I am disabled, queer, and Latine. I have an impairment, but I am disabled by societal barriers.

These language choices underscore the differences between impairment and disability:

  • Impairment is the term used by disability studies scholars to refer to a physiological difference in one’s body or mind, and
  • Disability is a lived experience with far‐reaching political, social, and economic implications.

When referencing disability, naming it explicitly is important. The UW embraces the word “disability” and actively avoids the use of outmoded euphemisms such as “special needs,” “physically or mentally challenged,” differently‐ or alternatively‐abled.

Advice from the Office of the ADA Coordinator

Intentionally ask for and consider the recommendation or preference of disabled people themselves.

Resources to Learn More

There are many good resources for learning more about language that conveys respect for disabled people and their experiences. A good place to begin is the Disability Language Style Guide published by the National Center on Disability and Journalism, additional resources are below. Further reading on the discourse of equitable language in the disability community include: