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Terminology and Language

Throughout history, the language used to describe disabled people has often been negative, hurtful and derogatory. Words such as ‘handicapped’, ‘invalid’, ‘vulnerable’, ‘infirm’ and ‘cripple’ have all been used in everyday society, and have only fairly recently been seen in the negative light they should be. Language such as this suggests that disabled people are “less than” their contemporaries, and that they are weak, inferior and useless. This negative language reinforces stereotypes which some people have of disabled people, that we are incapable, a source of pity and scorn, and lesser people than the rest of society.


As such, GMCDP has strong opinions on the language that is used to describe disabled people. The following words highlight just some of the terminology we as an organisation would and would not use, and why.


Disabled People vs People with Disabilities

Disabled People: we would use this term, as it means people with impairments who experience barriers in society. People often avoid using the term “disabled people” as they believe it is a negative term, however we believe this puts the focus where it belongs - on the barriers imposed by society.

People with disabilities: is often used instead. People believe that by putting the person first, you are focusing on the individual, and not their disability. If we look at language through the lens of the social model, this doesn’t make sense. “Disability” is the barriers and discrimination disabled people experience in society. So disabled people do not “have disabilities” – the “disability” is out in society, not “within” the disabled person.


Segregated School vs Special School

Segregated school: we use this term as we think it reflects the reality of so called “special schools”. Young disabled people are segregated from their peers, mainstream education, and in the case of residential schools, mainstream society. The education they receive is often inferior, with limited opportunities to attain the same levels of qualifications available in mainstream schools. Disabled children are often underestimated, exploited for financial gain, and suffer the consequences of an inferior education.

Special school: we would not use this term, as quite frankly we don’t think there is anything special about them. This is not to denigrate the good work done by many members of staff, or to ignore the positive experiences of individual young disabled people in these schools (or indeed, the negative experiences some have experienced in mainstream education). Our position as an organisation is that these types of schools shouldn’t have to exist – mainstream education should be accessible and suitably equipped for all children. If all disabled children and non-disabled children received a suitable and accessible education in mainstream provision, this would go some way to preventing the segregation many disabled people experience later in life in society. Instead of sending young disabled children to a separate, more costly education institution, effort and funds should be allocated to making mainstream education fully accessible.


Personal Assistant vs Carer

Personal Assistant: we use the term Personal Assistant because it is less emotive than carer, and indicates the disabled person is in control of the assistance they receive. Personal Assistant reflects a more professional relationship.

Carer: the term carer has connotations of “looking after”, and implies the power balance is one of being in charge or responsible for a grown individual, in the way that children have carers. The word carer suggests that the disabled person is being ‘cared for’ as a passive recipient with little control over their situation.


Accessible Parking Bay vs Disabled Parking Bay

Accessible Parking Bay: we use the term accessible parking bay, as it more accurately describes what it is. Disabled people don’t require a “special” parking space – we simply need to be closer to the entrance, or ensure we have room to leave the vehicle when using a wheelchair, neither of which is covered by a standard parking space.

Disabled Parking Bay: we don’t use the term disabled parking bay, as it doesn’t describe what the space actually is, and rather it puts the emphasis on the word disability. The parking space is not disabled, it is accessible.


Accessible Toilet vs Disabled Toilet

Accessible Toilet: similar to the parking bay, we use the term accessible toilet as it more accurately describes what it is.

Disabled Toilet: again, we feel by using the term disabled toilet we are both inaccurately describing what it is, but it also has an undercurrent of segregation and separation.


Non-disabled person vs Able-bodied person

Non-disabled Person: we would use the term non-disabled person as we feel this is an accurate description when talking about people who do not have impairments, or experience barriers which disabled people face.

Able bodied: we would not use the term able-bodied, as this is an inaccurate description of non-disabled people. Firstly, not all impairments are physical – someone who has mental health issues may be otherwise very physically fit. We also wouldn’t use this term as the implication is that the flip side of being “able” bodied is that you are “un-able, or dis-abled” by your impaired body. In accordance with the social model, we believe that disability is the barriers in society which people with impairments come across which prevent them from leading a fully inclusive and equal part in society. By using the term able-bodied, we are reducing it to physicality once more, so we would always use the term non-disabled person.


Needs vs Special Needs

Needs: we use the term needs rather than special needs as everyone has the same needs, they just might need to be met differently. Having adjustments in place to meet their needs doesn’t change the fact that the need itself is the same.

Special Needs: we don’t use the term special needs, as there aren’t any “special” needs exclusive to disabled people. We all need to get up in the morning, use the bathroom, wash, and eat etc. Some people’s needs simply need to be met differently. There are also negative connotations with the word “special” which has been used as a patronising and insulting term for many years now to describe disabled people.


Seizures vs Fit

Seizures: we would use the term seizures as this is a medical term for a medical condition, therefore it is an accurate description.

Fits: we wouldn’t use the word fits, as this is not accurate medical terminology. There are also negative connotations with the word fits, for example “hissy fit” or “fits of pique”.


Wheelchair User vs Wheelchair Bound

Wheelchair User: We use the term wheelchair user as this best describes what a wheelchair is – it is a tool to be used. For wheelchair users, a wheelchair can mean greater independence, access and the ability to go out and about in society (as long as places are accessible, of course).

Wheelchair Bound: we do not use the term wheelchair bound, as this has negative connotations, and implies the wheelchair user is eternally “bound” or stuck in their wheelchair, which they are not. They use a wheelchair as a means of moving around and transportation.