Has the switch from “disabled people” to “people with disabilities” really opened doors for disabled individuals?

Or has this campaign made no difference?

Other forms of this shift in labeling include children with disabilities, adults with disabilities and students with disabilities.

In the disabled community, there is a division in preference, with many disabled people opting for “just say the word,” that is, “disabled.”

It’s not about what’s moral, what’s ethical, or what’s right or wrong. It has much to do with what catches on, based on how much it’s pushed.

For instance, referring to disabled students as “handicappers” at the campus where I was a college student was quite acceptable.

The student newspaper regularly referred to disabled students as simply “handicappers.” Nobody protested.

There was once a publication called Handicapped Coloradan. You won’t find it with a search because this was long ago. Today, this name would be unthinkable.

Shall we just say “the word”?

Choosing between “disabled people” and “people with disabilities” involves considerations of language, identity and advocacy within the disability community.

Both phrases aim to convey respect and acknowledgment, but the preference for one over the other is subjective, often reflecting broader shifts in societal attitudes towards disability.

Advocates for using “disabled people” argue that it brings the disability aspect to the forefront, emphasizing that being disabled is an integral part of one’s identity.

Embracing “disabled people” can be a way of asserting pride and acceptance of one’s disability, challenging the notion that it should be sidelined or separated from a person’s identity.

To say “disabled people” would also mean that proponents believe that “people with disabilities” infers some level of shame in being disabled — as the term separates the person from the disability.

Disabled people is a move towards recognizing disability as a natural variation of human diversity, not something to be hidden or seen as a burden.

By using this terminology, individuals with physical or mental challenges assert that their experiences and identities are valid and valuable.

Furthermore, “disabled people” creates a sense of community among individuals who share similar experiences and challenges.

By embracing the term, people may feel a stronger connection to others within the disability community.

Finally, handicapped people may find “with disabilities” to be condescending or patronizing, a subliminal version of baby talk. In short, their motto is, “just say the word!”

Person First Preference

“People with disabilities” follows the person-first language approach, emphasizing the individual before the disability.

Advocates argue that it places importance on the person’s humanity, talents and potential beyond their disability.

This perspective aligns with the medical model of disability, which views disability as a condition that can be managed, treated or cured.

Using “people with disabilities” is seen as a person-centered approach that focuses on the individual’s abilities, achievements and aspirations rather than their limitations.

This terminology aims to reduce stigma by emphasizing the shared humanity and commonalities between people with and without medical or cognitive challenges.

It reflects a desire to bring on inclusivity and create a society where individuals with disabilities are recognized for their unique contributions and are not defined solely by their impairments.

The person-first language approach is rooted in the belief that disability should not define a person; it’s merely one aspect of their identity.

When advocates place “people” before “disabilities,” the emphasis is on the shared humanity that transcends any physical or cognitive differences. 

Is there a final verdict?

Both “disabled people” and “people with disabilities” have their merits, and the preference for one term over the other can vary based on cultural, personal and regional factors.

If you work at an agency for the disabled in which you’ve been handed printed language guidelines including “We say people with disabilities,” not “disabled people,” then you may consider using the person-first form when communicating to staff and clients.

Outside of that context, it’s up to the individual, because there just is no right or wrong here. There is no black and white.

A writer such as myself may use both terms — simply to appease Google’s algorithms’ favoritism towards different ways of saying the same thing.

However, personally, I think “people with disabilities” has a cumbersome component, not to mention is patronizing.

It was once widely accepted. Now it isn’t. I’ve also noticed that there seems to be a move to replace “people with disabilities” with “people with special needs.”

I’ve also noticed that the evolving terminology has not done a single doggone thing to open up more opportunities for handicapped people.

Person-first terminology has NOT made non-disabled people value disabled people more or be more inclusive towards them.

In fact, it may have actually had the opposite effect: subconsciously giving non-disabled individuals the idea that handicapped people should be treated as more fragile or in a condescending way — such as speaking loudly to someone in a wheelchair even though they could hear fine, or using a slower voice when learning someone is autistic!

In the end … YOU be the judge.

Lorra Garrick has been covering medical and fitness topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer. In 2022 she received a diagnosis of Level 1 Autism Spectrum Disorder.