Mentor Tip: Labels

Send this message to the mentors only.

Subject: Mentoring tips on labels

Our attitudes are reflected in the labels we use. How society labels individuals with disabilities as a group can have an impact on how young people with disabilities view themselves.

Responding to negative labels can test self-identity and self-value. Below is part of one conversation about terminology used to describe people with disabilities that took place in an online discussion of people with disabilities. These comments provide insights into how we as a society can best communicate about and with individuals who have disabilities, including the young people with whom we interact. Although specific opinions vary, they all promote using person-first language; describing a disability in a respectful, straightforward, and truthful way; and avoiding expressions that suggest that the disability implies anything beyond a specific functional limitation. Insights gained from reading these comments may be helpful as you mentor participants in our electronic community.

  • The phrase "differently abled" annoys me. My belief is that there is nothing inherent in a disability that makes us better in something else. Besides, the "differently abled" term tends to evoke the "supercrip" image.
  • The term "differently abled" drives me nuts. It strikes me as a phrase coined by nondisabled people who were trying to be politically correct but really had no idea what they were talking about. Some nondisabled people tend to think, also, that a term referring to a deficit, rather than a difference, is offensive to us. I don't know about everyone else, but I know I'm not offended by it. I do still prefer "disabled" to "handicapped;" however, my mom still uses "handicapped." I always tell her, "Handicaps are for bowlers and golfers."
  • I really don't like the concept of being politically correct (PC). My personal guess is that PC was created by a bunch of people who felt guilty about how they treated others. Bottom line is as long as it shows respect for the person, that's cool. I prefer "person with a disability." The point is that the person comes first and is separated from the disability.
  • The problem with these names is that they're to get us all into one group for convenience's sake. But for each of us, there is a term that's true. I'm blind, for example. If you say I'm blind, I say, "Yes I am." But physically challenged, disabled, handicapped....hmmmm.
  • The world, as I know it today, thrives on labels. And this is one area where the world isn't prejudiced. We've got geek, nerd, grunge, cool, old, stupid, dude, poor, rich, straight, queer, black, Yankee, hick, redneck, deaf, dumb, etc., etc. It seems that if there weren't labels no one on this planet would know how to talk about someone else.
  • A couple of conclusions that I've come to are these. First, we "label" things so that we CAN talk about them. That is the purpose of language—to identify people, places, things, ideas, and feelings. If we had no term to describe a person who has a disability, we would not have the Americans with Disabilities Act, this discussion list, or any of the other access instruments that we've all seen develop in the past several years. I don't think the problem is necessarily in the language, but rather in the negative feelings that may be behind the language. Humans have to communicate, and we do it most often through language. Identifying thoughts, objects, and even people as clearly as possible is a good thing. Using language to discriminate or be cruel is a bad thing.
  • If people feel it's necessary to describe me, I prefer my name and "who is physically challenged." Too many people associate Cerebral Palsy with mental disabilities (which irritates me!).