‘Disabled’ vs. ‘Physically-Challenged’ and Other Such Terms

Debate poduims created by me

Hello and welcome to another Thought Provokers post where we discuss and debate important topics in the disability world! (As usual, feel free to join the discussion in the comment section below. There is no right or wrong. I encourage you to disagree, agree, or simply share your opinion). Today I decided to address the term ‘disabled’ and whether it should really be used to describe people with a disability.

One of the comments I’ve seen the most since starting this blog is people telling me that I shouldn’t use the term ‘disabled’ to refer to myself because of its negative connotation. It feels like something I’m constantly having to explain whenever I post something. Here is the thing: despite the fact that I have both disabled and non-disabled readers, so far only my non-disabled readers are the ones that have written to me saying that the term makes them feel uncomfortable or is not the right term to use. Most of the disabled people I know are fine with it – it seems to mostly upset those who aren’t, which I think is interesting.

Picture of the word ‘disabled’ next to my hand

I cannot stress enough that ‘disabled’ is not a bad word or derogatory term. Not everything is meant to be so literal. It doesn’t mean that someone is ‘not able’ to do as much as others – it refers to limited movement and senses. For instance: I have limited movement in my fingers. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I can’t do as much as others though. Instead, I’ve found other ways to do things like writing and typing with a pen in my mouth. ‘Disabled’ simply and truthfully refers to some of the specific functions within my body, rather than the tasks that I can do or how active I am. There’s no point denying that I’m different from others in that way – because I am.

Collage of patronising terms for disabilities illustrated by me

Terms like ‘physically-challenged’, ‘special needs’, and ‘handicapped’ are seen by many in the community (like myself) to be patronising and like they’re trying to politely dance around the issue. But making a word that ‘quite literally describes who I am’ seem like an insult – doesn’t make me feel good. Yes, I’m in a wheelchair. Yes, I’m disabled. Don’t feel the need to sugar-coat it.

Disabled is also the official term used for things like the Paralympics, the news, and the British government. In fact, it’s probably the safest term to use since it’s the most popular and commonly-used phrase to refer to disabilities. Whereas terms like ‘handicapped’ are considered extremely rude in many places. 

Photo of a woman looking in a mirror by Tima Miroshnichenko via Pexels.com

I used to use the term physically-challenged to refer to myself because my mother told me to. I was young and therefore didn’t care about what term I used anyways so I did as she asked. However, I decided to start using the term disabled after the first time I truly thought about it myself. After I made the decision, I said the word again and again while looking in the mirror – and it made me feel powerful. Like I’d stopped hiding behind something and took more pride in the way that I was. Everyone’s story is different though and other people are free to feel offended by this term and to use whatever makes them feel comfortable. I just don’t understand non-disabled people telling me off for using this term to refer to my own body.

Remember that respect and understanding are still important no matter what term you prefer. No one is morally superior for referring to disabilities as X for whatever reason instead of X. No one should condemn a disabled person, judge them, or start thinking less of them for using a term you don’t agree with. I’m completely fine with other disabled people using a different term to refer to themselves since it’s ultimately their own decision.

Image of the disability symbol by AbsolutVision via Unsplash.com

And lastly, all disabled people have a right to kindly ask you to stop using a word that makes them uncomfortable when referring to them and their own body without receiving an eye roll. It is pretty important. I once had a nurse who refused to stop calling me handicapped and a friend who thought I was being pompous for not wanting her to call me a cripple. Please have patience with this, especially since some extremely offensive terms are still used in common vocabulary when it comes to disabilities like ‘midget’ and ‘retard’. It’s okay to make mistakes if you don’t know any better, and it’s okay to educate if you do. I’ll probably have to repeat this explanation many more times in my life and that’s fine because I think it’s important for people to know.

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(This post was written many years ago when I was much younger. It was originally about the moment I decided to start using the term ‘disabled’ and why. It was recently re-written on the 14th of September, 2021 because I felt like this was more important to share and was something that I wanted to address on my blog somewhere)

3 thoughts on “‘Disabled’ vs. ‘Physically-Challenged’ and Other Such Terms

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