Language is fluid, it is continuously changing, evolving and adapting to keep up with the needs of its users. For this reason, words and phrases that were deemed acceptable just a few years ago, may cause offense if used now.

Choice of language may seem trivial, but in reality, it is an extremely powerful tool that can both reinforce and challenge stereotypes. It can convey respect and equality, or it can encourage people to think less of others, exuding contempt and hate.

In fact, recent research by Stanford University found that some well-meaning statements can perpetuate harmful stereotypes that society has spent years trying to debunk.

For example, while saying “girls are as good as boys at maths” is meant as encouragement, researchers say it implies that being good at maths is more common or natural for boys than girls.

Instead, we should say “girls and boys are equally good at maths”. While the change is subtle, it changes the structure of the sentence and puts girls and boys in the same position, without comparing the two.

The power of language when talking about disability

The same rules apply when talking about disability. While some phrases are well-meaning, such as “differently abled”, they are often perceived as condescending and patronising.  

This is because the phrase can be seen to dilute the difference in experiences between disabled people and non-disabled people, and it also suggests that the term ‘disability’ is uncomfortable and should be avoided.

As disability advocate Devon Price explains in a blog post: “If a person has a disability, you can just call them disabled. It’s not a bad word or a source of shame. In fact, acknowledging disability openly can help us fight against ableism and injustice.”

He explains that while it is true that every person has a different ability level, some people are truly impaired or lack certain abilities that able-bodied or non-disabled people possess.  

He writes: “Often, being disabled means lacking a physical or mental function that abled people have, or functioning in a significantly altered way. A person who cannot walk does not have “different walking abilities” than a person who can walk. They can’t walk. That function is disabled. This doesn’t make them inferior — it just means that they benefit from having access to tools like wheelchairs.”

He added that acknowledging disability allows us to have frank conversations about a person’s needs and limits, and avoiding the word disabled can make it more difficult for people to express their needs.

The social model of disability

Today, most disabled people relate to the language of the social model of disability, which was developed by people with disabilities in the 1970s and 1980s.

The social model of disability proposes that what makes someone disabled is not their medical conditions, but the attitudes and structures of society.

This means that if the world was set up in a way that was accessible for disabled people, they would not be excluded or restricted.

Disability advocates pushed to move away from the medical model of disability because it did not allow for a more inclusive way of living. Instead, it implied that disabilities or impairments should be “fixed” or “changed” by treatment, even when it is not causing illness or pain.

Under this model, society was taught to look at what was ‘wrong’ with the person, rather than what they need. Disabled people were therefore described in a way that reflected a medical view of their disability, such as ‘retarded, ‘handicapped’, or ‘wheelchair bound’.

The social model of disability instead considers the person before their disability, conveying respect and positivity. For example, we now say “person with a learning disability” (not “retarded”), “disabled person” (not “handicapped”) and “wheelchair user” (not “wheelchair bound”).

How has the way we talk about disability changed over the years?

Many of the disability charities that are still around today were built on this traditional, medical model of disability.

For example, in 1946, when the learning disability charity Mencap was first established, Judy Fryd, who formed the charity, named it ‘The National Association of Parents of Backward Children’.

Even now, the name Mencap is a splicing together of ‘mentally handicapped’, a term that, as previously mentioned, is now seen as outdated and offensive.

Similarly, the disability charity Scope, which was initially a cerebral palsy charity, was called the ‘Spastics Society’. It only changed its name to Scope in 1994, after a survey revealed that people with cerebral palsy, particularly younger adults, felt the term spastic had become offensive and stigmatising.

Clearly these charities did not choose offensive terms as their names, rather they became offensive over time after they were adopted by society as terms of abuse.

Indeed, one of the predominant reasons the Spastic Society chose the name ‘Scope’ was because it is a neutral name with no obvious link to disability or cerebral palsy, meaning it cannot be turned into a term of abuse.

While it was a risk for Scope to change their name and lose their brand recognition, as it would be for any charity, Richard Hawkes, Scope's chief executive, said it was “an important moment” in the charity’s transition from helping vulnerable beneficiaries to “working alongside disabled people to make change happen.”

"Disability exists. It is a beautiful source of diversity. It is not a thing to hide away"

Ultimately, however, there are no universal rules when talking about disability. While some disabled people prefer person-first language, others would rather put their identity first.

For example, many autistic people prefer to be referred to as ‘autistic’ rather than as ‘having autism’, as they see their autism as an integral, irremovable part of their identity.

However, for people with Down’s syndrome, most would rather be referred to as ‘a person with Down’s syndrome’ rather than ‘a Down’s person’, as they do not wish to be defined by their condition before their humanity.

It is therefore essential that disability organisations continue to engage in regular conversations with disabled people to find out an individual’s preference around disability and the use of language.

On an individual basis, if you are not sure how to refer to someone, simply ask them in a polite and a respectful way. As Price says: “Disability exists. It is a beautiful source of diversity. It is not a thing to hide away.”