Labels and Language. Replacing Labels with Correct Terminology

Labels and Language. Replacing labels with correct terminology

Over 1 billion people or 15% of the global population are estimated to experience disability. In Ireland, the figure is approximately 13.5%, based on Census 2016, which is an increase of 8% on Census 2011. Figures are increasing due to a rise in chronic health conditions and an aging population.

According to the World Health Organization, disability refers to the interaction between individuals with a condition (e.g., Cerebral Palsy, Down syndrome, depression) and personal or environmental factors (e.g., negative attitudes, inaccessible transport or buildings, limited social support and communication channels).

Disability is a human rights issue. People with a disability are subjected to multiple rights violations, including abuse, prejudice, stigmatization, discrimination, or disrespect because of their disability, which may intersect with other forms of discrimination based on age or gender, among other factors.

Ireland has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with a Disability, signed International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention on Vocational Rehabilitation (No.159) and ILO Code on Managing Disability in the Workplace, and is committed to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

We are rich in policy, strategies, codes of practice, etc., but consistently weak on implementation, and, as a result, inequities persist.

Do we have legacy issues? 

In the past, people with disabilities were cared for under a medical model of disability, portraying people with disabilities as being sick. They were “othered” in some way, as being sick to be cared for rather than cared about and being disabled rather than enabled.

In its 2017 National Survey of Public Attitudes to Disability in Ireland, the NDA found that only 36% of respondents agreed that “People with disabilities were treated fairly in Irish society”.

Despite growing recognition of the importance of equality, diversity, and inclusion in the workplace, many organisations do not always know where to begin.  Disability is not always viewed the same as diversity and inclusion when planning workplace programmes. Although 90% of companies claim to prioritize diversity, only 4% consider disability in those initiatives, according to a report from the Return On Disability Group (Caroline Casey, 2020).

Ireland, at 36%, has the fourth-lowest EU rate of people with disabilities in employment.  Why is this?

  • Do we apply labels to people with disabilities that exclude them?
  • Do we continue to see people with disabilities as being incapable?
  • Does the “head-tilting” looking at a person with pity still continue? 
  • Is there an unconscious bias toward people with disabilities?
  • Do we think they will be sick and need too many days off?
  • Do we not yet understand how easy it is to make reasonable accommodations?

The Stigma

Consider these labels that person is “useless”, “a know-it-all”, “aggressive”. What kind of perceptions do these labels conjure up? 

When labels are used, a person becomes stigmatized and is treated accordingly, making it difficult to break free. Behaviours like these, if unchecked, can negatively impact workplace environments. How is disability perceived in your organisation?

Labels only identify a component or piece of something. It is not up to an ableist society to label demographics with descriptions that determine their ability to live their lives. People self-identify with aspects of their life in certain ways, e.g., “I use a wheelchair”, but it is only one component in the intersectionality of them as a person.

Instead of thinking about labels, use proper terminology!

Misused, outdated, or negative terminology is inappropriate and hurtful. Equally hurtful is ableist language.

Recognizing outdated terminology is respectful: “She is not wheelchair-bound”, “She uses a wheelchair”.

Eliminating negative tone is equally respectful: A person with impairment should not be defined by their condition. 

Removing disrespectful slang and words that imply victimization is progressive: He is not a victim, unfortunate, crippled, sufferer, stricken by, retarded; he simply is a person with a disability.

The push for people first language is on!

The Future

In the past, language has marginalised people with disabilities, highlighting them as needing special schools, special treatment, or additional needs. This language of difference contributed to the use of labels and segregation, but it is reflective of the times we live in, and it evolves. The word handicapped was replaced by differently-abled in the 1980s by the U.S. Democratic National Committee while the U.K. opted for disabled.

Nobody knows what words will be used in the future. For now, if you want to make a conscious effort to affect positive change in how disability is spoken about, try some of the following tips.

  • Acknowledge disability the more conscious we are, the more likely we are to accept it as part of life.
  • Learn about biases. What are unconscious biases? Look for articles, podcasts, etc., by people with disabilities; listen to their perspective on life.
  • Do not make assumptions about people e.g., ask questions.

Allow our legacy of labelling people remain in the past. We are all people, equal in our desires to have connections with a right to be included and valued in society.

What To Do

Language is ever-changing and keeping up to date is a never-ending process.  Checking in with people is the best way to keep current. In doing so, it will facilitate a deeper understanding of disability and the negativity of labels and, in turn, will promote a cultural/societal shift toward inclusion and ability.

In summary, my suggestion is this: Always listen to the people who are impacted the most, ask questions (respectfully), and avoid assumptions.  How you talk about ability contributes to inclusion.

Further Reading

Caroline Casey. Harvard Business Review:

National Disability Authority:

Scope, 2014 U.K., two-thirds of the British population feel uncomfortable talking to a disabled person,