Language Matters

As society, we continually evolve when it comes to language. In recent history, we have become much more reflective, especially when it comes to language that holds meaning for particular groups of people.

We’ve stopped saying, “That’s so gay!”. At the time when the phrasing was popular, if anyone called you out on it for being discriminatory, you’d retort back with, “Well, that’s not what I meant!”. And likely, you didn’t intend to offend gay people – but over time, we’ve come to realize that intent and impact are two different things.

We shouldn’t use a term in a negative manner when better word choices can more accurately express what we mean AND not imply anything negative about a group.

Person-First Language

As I went through teacher education, it was always emphasized to us to use “person-first” language when referring to students. This means using phrasing like “student with autism” rather than “autistic student”. The intention is to emphasize the person rather than the disability. The intent is positive – but what is the impact?

Within the last couple of years, I have started to do a much better job of listening to the people impacted it comes to equity issues. I’ve come to discover that person-first language is not everyone’s preference. Through hearing other perspectives, my own view is widening. I can’t speak for others nor do I think everyone feels the same, but I can make an effort to share a few perspectives that have helped change my mind about always using person-first language:

“When we say “person with autism,” we say that it is unfortunate and an accident that a person is Autistic. We affirm that the person has value and worth, and that autism is entirely separate from what gives him or her value and worth. In fact, we are saying that autism is detrimental to value and worth as a person, which is why we separate the condition with the word “with” or “has.” Ultimately, what we are saying when we say “person with autism” is that the person would be better off if not Autistic, and that it would have been better if he or she had been born typical. We suppress the individual’s identity as an Autistic person because we are saying that autism is something inherently bad like a disease.”

~Lydia Brown – Identity-First Language

Another similar perspective:

Consider how PFL intentionally separates a person from their disability. Although this supposedly acknowledges personhood, it also implies that “disability” or “disabled” are negative, derogatory words. In other words, disability is something society believes a person should try to dissociate from if they want to be considered a whole person. This makes it seem as though being disability is something of which you should be ashamed. PFL essentially buys into the stigma it claims to be fighting.

Emily Ladau – Why Person-First Language Doesn’t Always Put the Person First

I also can’t advocate to always use Identify-First Language as that is not yet a complete consensus, but I am becoming more and more aware that it is the preference of many. It causes me to be more conscious of all my language choices surrounding disability.


Regardless as to whether or not any of us get the language “right”, I think it is easier to come to a consensus on our intent, in the context of disability & education:

  • Disabilities do not stop people from being extremely capable
  • School systems have not always done a great job at ensuring a Universal Design perspective – creating an environment where all can demonstrate their unique strengths – we’ve got work to do!

I have no idea if this is actually attributable to Albert Einstein, but the sentiment helps illustrate the point:

Image of a monkey, penguin, elephant, fish, seal and dog lined up in front of a teacher, next to a tree. Teacher says, "For a fair selection everybody has to take the same exam: please climb that tree." The quote underneath reads, "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid."

That’s why, when I saw Katie Novak tweet out the following, I understood and agreed wholeheartedly with the intent that we, as educators/as a system, need to do more to make sure we make changes:


Katie, myself and many others have since begun a discussion on the impact of the use of the word “disabled”. At the heart of the matter, I know we each believe in kids and believe in doing the right things to ensure kids are successful – ultimately that matters more than our differing opinions on semantics. We have a common ground and I really do see and respect the intent of the phrase. That said, as illustrated above – impact matters and our continued dialogue may help us to dig deeper and make sure our language choices are not communicating something unintended.

Katie wrote a blog post in which she articulates her perspective. She sees a difference in the word “disability” and the word “disabled”.

When I say curriculum is disabled, I think of the word differently than disability. What I know is that curriculum doesn’t work for many students, for many reasons, when it is one-size-fits-all. To me, that makes it disabled.

Katie Novak – My Struggle With the Word Disabled

My perspective is very much the same – with one difference.

I’m a huge believer in Universal Design for Learning. I have spent the past two years supporting teachers, students, classrooms and schools with the implementation of assistive technology – so I’ve experienced how magical it can be when new doors are opened for kids that makes it easier for them to show us their brilliance. And a lot of that “work” resides with us – we’ve got mindsets and structures to shift.

I just don’t like using the word “disabled” in a negative context as a way to describe this issue. Many people identify themselves as disabled and don’t see that as a negative thing, so when we give a negative connotation to the word “disabled”, we’re implying (not intentionally, but still….) that being disabled is negative.

Trying to use the two words “disability” and “disabled” as distinct from one another to distinguish the concepts doesn’t help – especially because so many people do have different language preferences and can equally consider themselves as “being disabled” or as “having a disability” (or both).

Is Being Disabled Contextual?

UDL founders, David Rose and Anne Meyer have said since UDL’s infancy that “disability is contextual.” In the book, UDL Theory and Practice (Meyer, Rose, and Gordon) the authors reflected on the beginnings of UDL and noted:

In the early 1990s, we shifted our approach to address the disabilities of schools rather than students. We later coined a name for this new approach: universal design for learning (UDL) …. Today, the public mindset is beginning to shift away from a medical model of disability towards a recognition that context and self-awareness as a learner both play a huge role in whether any given condition is disabling or not.

Katie Novak – My Struggle With the Word Disabled

I get the intent of the “disability is contextual” phrase – I do agree that inclusive, supportive, empowering, enabling, barrier-free contexts are our goal. I do believe that some people thrive in some environments more than others. I do believe educators have a responsibility to be conscious about the environments they create to take a wide range of needs into account.

But when I look at the impact of the phrasing that people are disabled in some contexts but not in others, what I hear is that our goal is to create contexts that eliminate disability. We’re saying that contexts without the disability are preferred over those with it. Linguistically, disability/disabled is being used with a negative connotation.

I don’t like the “disability is contextual” choice of wording because, though I agree with the underlying intent, I completely disagree with the (unintended) impact.

A couple (perhaps hyperbolic) examples to illustrate:

If I am autistic, I am autistic in all contexts. My autism doesn’t disappear just because I’m in an environment that meets my needs. It’s awesome to have environments that meet my needs and I’m all for that, but by saying that I am “not disabled” in that context implies that it’s “good” that my disability has been minimized.

If I’m deaf and I’m a world-famous painter, those buying my paintings in an art gallery may have no idea that I am deaf. Does that make me “not disabled” in that context? I’d argue no. I’m never “not deaf”. It’s not something that goes away no matter what context I’m in. Perhaps being deaf has meant that I see and represent things that much more vividly than other artists. My success may be in part because I have a disability/am disabled. I can take pride in my identity and it may be offensive to me to suggest I’m “not disabled” in certain contexts.

In summary, I’d suggest that instead of saying that “disability is contextual”, we can shift phrasing to instead say what we actually mean – that contexts can be inclusive (or not), empowering (or not), etc. Maybe it’s not as “catch phrasey” – but it more explicitly states what we mean without the underlying implicit suggestion that minimizing disability is the goal.

Disabled Does Not Equal Not Able

Meanings can be and are socially constructed. We can contribute to the shaping of language when we are conscious about our use of it.

None of us participating in this discussion believe that being disabled means being not able, despite the linguistic roots of the word.

Many in various disability communities are proud of their identities as disabled. We should take their example and support it.

We should make sure that our language doesn’t imply that being disabled or having a disability is a negative thing. We should make sure our phrasing doesn’t imply hiding/removing/minimizing disability is a positive thing.

Full disability acceptance means embracing it. All of it. And making sure our language does, too.

Categories: General


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