Language and Imaging

Language about disability continues to evolve and change, which can feel daunting to keep up with.  However, that’s not a reason to disregard its development, because the way people are talked about impacts perceptions of them and how they are treated.  There are two styles of language preferred by individuals with disabilities, person-first language, for example “I am a person with Down Syndrome,” and identity-first language, “I am an autistic man” or “I am disabled.”  The preference for person-first language reacts to the historical experiences of individuals with disabilities to be defined by their disability and treated as objects of pity to be taken care of. Identity-first language rejects the normative cultural assessments that devalue individuals with disabilities. Those who prefer it want to call attention to this and that disability is an important part of who they are.

People with either preference want to be seen in their fullness as human beings and draw attention to the disabling aspects of the environment. When you’re unsure about language, ask the person how they like to be referred to.  The National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD) recommends person-first language. The exception is when the individual you are talking to or writing about prefers identity-first language.  And remember, it’s always okay to refer to someone by their name.  

What’s Wrong with Euphemisms About Disability?

Individuals with disabilities reject euphemistic language as patronizing and feel it indicates a discomfort with disability, that it is something not discussed in polite society. Examples of this are “differently-abled” and “special needs.”  “Special needs” is a holdover from special education and is also rejected by individuals with disabilities.  When encountered, it is typically parents or family members who have become so used to being told what their loved one cannot do or will never do, rather than considering what they can do and their possibilities for growth with appropriate education and support.  “There are no special needs, only human needs.  However, some will require extra support.”* Everyone needs to belong, to be listened to, to contribute, to be needed, to be heard, appreciated, supported, access to education …. The faith we proclaim calls us to support this.

Additional concerns when portraying individuals with disabilities in language and visuals.

Persons with disabilities are each a person who has abilities, interests, fears, desires, deficits, vulnerabilities, needs, just like everyone else. They do not want to be pitied or portrayed as inspiring examples of “overcoming” their disability. Photos of individuals with disabilities should be of them participating in ordinary ways in the Church within typical settings, in age-appropriate ways, and avoid segregated settings. 

Additional Information on Language and Writing about Individuals with Disabilities.

Click here for English Guidelines: How to Write about People with Disabilities 9th Edition, 2020. 

Click here for Spanish Directes: Como Escribir Sobre Personas cone Discapacidades Novena Edicion. 

Click here for a good article that discusses person-first language versus identity-first language by an autistic man.    It’s very insightful.

*Erik Carter, Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities.

Updated 1/20/2022