Let’s talk about disabilities, technology, and design

We don’t always know what words to use when talking about disabilities, and this keeps us from having important conversations and making progress.

We all have disabilities. Those of us who fall into the category of  “disabled” are people whose conditions are considered limiting enough to need accommodations in order to be self-sufficient and live independently. That said, the disabling effect of conditions can be dependent on context.

Disability becomes a handicap only when we encounter barriers.
—George Covington and Bruce Hannah, Access by Design

Design can make a condition disabling—or irrelevant. And technology has a huge role to play in minimizing barriers. We must be able to talk about disabilities without letting awkwardness about language get in the way.

Minimizing language barriers

We all want to be considered for who we are, not only our age, gender, clothes, or hair color. A disability is one attribute of many. It does not define a person.

People-first language is a concept that emphasizes the person first—“people with disabilities” versus “disabled people,” “person who uses a wheelchair” versus “wheelchair-bound.” It also minimizes negative connotations of disability—“disabled” versus “handicapped,” a person “with muscular dystrophy” versus “afflicted by muscular dystrophy.” Using a people-first approach when talking about disabilities may help alleviate concern about saying the wrong words.

The people-first approach is based on a conceptual framework of placing the actor (“person”) before the attribute (“who is blind”). There are other schools of thought, including inclusive language in the UK.

The table below is adapted from the helpful Resource Guide for Teaching Students with Disabilities (PDF) from Cornell University. The purpose of the table is to demonstrate the difference between affirmative and negative phrases, and to show a “people-first” framework for talking about disabilities.

Words matter and people matter. But let’s not let hesitancy about using the right words keep us from talking about how to minimize disability through technology and design.

Affirmative phrases Negative phrases
Disability, disabled Defect, crippled, handicapped, invalid
Non-disabled, person who does not have a disability Normal, able-bodied
Person who is blind, person who is visually impaired, person with low vision The blind
Person who is deaf, person who is hearing impaired, person who is hard of hearing, person who has hearing loss Suffers from hearing loss, deaf
Person who has multiple sclerosis Afflicted with multiple sclerosis, suffers from multiple sclerosis, victim of multiple sclerosis
Person with epilepsy, person with a seizure disorder Epileptic
Person with depression Suffers from depression
Person who uses a wheelchair, wheelchair user Wheelchair-bound, confined to a wheelchair
Person who is unable to speak, nonverbal Dumb, mute
Person of short stature, person who has dwarfism Dwarf, midget
Person who stutters Stutterer

Table adapted from Cornell University Resources Guide for Teaching Students with Disabilities (PDF) section on “Communicating with People with Disabilities”

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