What Not To Say

Over the last year and a bit, I’ve tried getting to grips with some of the terminology surrounding illness and disability. Because there are a wide range of things covered by this it can be difficult – the global nature of the internet can also make things hard, as what phrasing to use can depend a bit on where you’re from. This discussion is inevitably going to be more personal and applicable to me than it will be general and universal. My basic rule, however, is ‘don’t be a dick’. If someone says they don’t like the word handicapped, don’t use it to refer to them. Ditto with different models of disability – assume someone else knows their own body better than you do, and therefore knows how they want to refer to it. I feel like quite a lot is just about treating people with respect – which I would hope everyone tries to do anyway. If you slip up, don’t make it about you and your mistakes, just apologise and move on.


Some words should always be avoided though! Slurs like r***** should never be said, and if anyone who isn’t related to me calls me a cripple I will give them evils. (Some people do use and like the word, so this is certainly not a rule, but perhaps I would ask first) I once heard someone say ‘handicapable’ which would be hilarious if it hadn’t actually happened – things like this often come from a ‘good place’ of wanting to emphasise things that disabled people can do, but end up diminishing us. Depending on how I feel, I prefer infantilising language to be avoided – it can make me feel fairly useless, and I feel that way a lot of the time anyway!


Inspirational is also a word I find quite problematic – I feel it’s something people often say when they don’t know what to say, or they have good intentions of wanting to draw attention to something someone has done. This happens a lot with the Paralympics or other disability sport events – and I completely understand the impulse. I think it’s sometimes the wrong word to use though – when Jonnie Peacock was called inspiring for going on Strictly Come Dancing, I think a more appropriate word might have been impressive! He was impressive, but I wasn’t ‘inspired’ to start ballroom dancing. It was great to see someone visibly disabled on a mainstream television show though! (I’ll probably write a blog about the importance of representation at some point!) I think my main issue with the idea of inspiring though is two-fold – it puts a lot of pressure on people to be ‘extraordinary’, and it sometimes betrays internal prejudice about what disabled people are and can be capable of. Both aspects sometimes manifest in a lack of support.


So, if I were to try and write a list of rules for communication with your disabled friend or family member, it might look something like this:


  1. Listen. What words or phrases do they want you to use?
  2. Remember that every person and every disability is different – you might be disabled yourself and have very different reactions to someone else.
  3. Don’t make disability out to be intrinsically a bad thing – I find a lot of aspects of it are awful, but a lot of our language (especially metaphorical language) is ableist and hurtful.

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