"Words are the envelopes that hold a person's experience of another person, place or thing." I learned this almost 30 years ago and knowing it has helped me learn to listen and speak differently. This is a matter of much more than semantics. The words we choose to use can and do make all the difference in the world.
As a person who lives with a disability, there are a few words that are commonly used incorrectly. If we use the right words, we have the potential to change the world's experience of people with disabilities. This applies to the observer and the person with the disability.
Disabled. This is the worst word of all. We disable an engine, which means turn it off. We disable a bomb, which means disconnect it. Last time I checked, I have neither been turned off nor disconnected. I am a fully functioning human being who lives with a disability. Not disabled. Many of us with a disability are often treated as though we have been disabled, turned off or disconnected, and this is wrong. Everyone has something that they cannot do, which means that everyone has some kind or level of disability. Mine, like tens of millions of others in this country, is just more visible than most others. Am I disabled? I am if you disconnect me or turn me off.
Handicap. The World Health Organization defines (in not so few words) a handicap as a person's judgment about a disability. This applies to the person with the disability and the observer. Is a disability a handicap? Only if we let it be. My father gave me a great compliment one day when he said "Michael, you are not handicapped. You may have a disability, but you are the least handicapped person that I know." I hope that can always be said about me.
There are other definitions of handicap. It can be an "added advantage " too. Shorter lines at airports and amusement parks, better parking spaces, discounts for travel, restaurants and more. It is also an advantage given to another in horseracing and golf -activities that many with disabilities don't do.
Person with a disability. This is always the right term to use. It is the term which allows the person with the disability to remain whole in everyone’s eyes. It is the term that contains the most respect and dignity for the individual. It also accurately reflects the condition of the individual.
Accessible. This is another correct term which is now used more and more instead of handicap. We now ask for accessible bathrooms, accessible parking, accessible hotel rooms. It suggests that the facility has been made accessible for someone with a disability, particularly those using a wheelchair. It is a correct term. After all, would you really want to stay in a hotel room that was handicapped?
Because I live with a disability, these words are important to me. I am certain that there was a time when I also used those other terms without much consideration. Now, as a member of the 51,000,000 member community of people in this country who live with a disability, I have changed my language and my perspective.
When we listen to the words someone uses, we can learn much more than the story they are telling. We can learn about their experience and perspective. Are they positive or negative? Accepting or judgmental? Responsible or victims?
When we change our own words, we can change how we see the world. More importantly, we can change how the world sees us.
Participate. Make a difference. Live a life that matters.