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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Why many advocates prefer the term ‘disabled people’ over ‘people with disabilities’

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Canadians need to get more comfortable with using the term “disabled people” to describe those who wish to be called that, advocates say.

Over the past 10 to 15 years, disability advocates have embraced the term “disabled person” to describe members of their community instead of “people with disabilities” — the go-to descriptor used since the 1960s.

And this is because they say the first one better centres their disability as part of their identity.

“I find that when allies or representative of disabled people are speaking about disability, they tend to be pretty cagey around the word ‘disabled,’” said Mads Clement, a Metis-Anishinaabe non-binary disability advocate. “When I hear ‘person with a disability’ or god forbid ‘differently-abled’… it has been from an ally.”

During their time as an inclusion advocate at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., Clement, who has autism, said, “everyone I’ve met through there, almost unanimously, prefers ‘disabled person.’”

But they told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview that well-meaning non-disabled people, in general, still have a lot of catching up to do.

“People think that ‘disabled’ is a bad word because disability has historically been associated with bad things before we learned how to care properly for disabled people.”

In the 1960s, psychologists and disability civil rights activists wanted to push back against deep stigma facing disabled people and the history of them being institutionalized, seeking to reclaim their stolen dignity and personhood.

“People with disabilities” is an example of “people-first language,” which puts the person before the diagnosis — describing what a person has rather than what a person is. Since the 1980s, organizations in Canada, like many other countries, have opted for this type of language to discuss not only those with disabilities but eventually those with AIDS, asthma, diabetes and other conditions.

But many in the disabled community told CTVNews.ca they are pivoting back to “identify-first language.”

“Disability is and does often become a huge part of who you are. So separating it as ‘persons with disabilities’ is like sort of taking away from the disabled experience in a way,” Clement explained.

This was echoed in past CTVNews.ca interviews with the co-founder of the Disability Justice Network of Ontario Sarah Jama, author and disability activist Amanda Leduc, and Regina-based disability activist John Loeppky.

Two disabled people or people with disabilities

They’ve all expressed their strong preferences for calling themselves “disabled people” and urged everyone to ask others what their own preferences are, since so many now want their disability to be front-and-centre.

They say they despise terms such as “differently-abled” or non-descript words such as as “diversibility” — a mashup of disability and diversity.

“Personally, I’ve hit my own wall with euphemism with disabilities or cute ways to refer to disabilities,” Jewelles Smith, the government relations co-ordinator for the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, said in a phone interview with CTVNews.ca. “I’m disabled and society is such that there are many things that are challenging.”

Clement agreed. “I don’t need to be told my disability is actually a superpower,” he said. “I am an adult who is concretely impacted by an ableist society. What’s my superpower? Having a meltdown on the train because it’s too loud?”

But Smith, who prefers the term ‘disabled person’ for herself, acknowledged that referring to people “with a disability” is still commonly used and isn’t necessarily offensive to some disabled folks.


The Government of Canada’s “A Way with Words and Images” resource page doesn’t specifically weigh in on the term “disabled people,” but urges the use of the term “people with disabilities” over terms such as “the disabled.”

The page also explains that “a disability is a functional limitation or restriction of an individual’s ability to perform an activity. The word ‘disabled’ is an adjective, not a noun. People are not conditions.”

In an email to CTVNews.ca, Shelley Fletcher, executive director of People First of Canada, a national organization representing people with intellectual disabilities, said, “we would mostly use either the phrase ‘person with a disability’ or ‘people with disabilities.’”

Echoing this preference was Krista Carr, executive vice-president of Inclusion Canada, a family-based association also helping people with intellectual disabilities. She told CTVNews.ca via email on Tuesday that most national disability organizations use “people with a disability.”

But both of them had caveats.

“Language evolves over time,” said Carr, who stressed she could only speak for Inclusion Canada. She fully appreciates and respects how the term “disabled person” is being more frequently used in some circles, with Fletcher similarly acknowledging that other “disability organizations may have their own preferences.”

And this change in disabled peoples’ preferences is definitely being noticed by Frank Smith, the national co-ordinator for the Ottawa-based advocacy group National Educational Association of Disabled Students.

“Every individual who has a disability might have their own strong reasons for one or the other,” he told CTVNews.ca in an email on Tuesday. In his own group’s public statements, Smith said they alternate “between ‘disabled person’ and ‘person with a disability;’ and ‘disabled student’ and ‘student with a disability’ for variety in the language.”

Since 1986, Smith’s group has been advocating full access to education and employment for post-secondary students with disabilities. And he explained that for years, person-first language ensured everyone saw that a disability didn’t limit a person’s place in society.

But Smith said the pivot back to “disabled people” is meant to “emphasize that the disability is something to be proud of.” And he fully supports “many different identities that they [the disabled community] bring to the educational, employment and daily life experiences.”

He attributes this change to progressives and “those in critical disability studies at universities,” referring to the field which examines how institutions, cities or societies ‘dis-able’ people systemically and socially.


“Sometimes depending on the type of disability, there can be a lot of linguistic gymnastics around it,” longtime disability advocate Seanna Takacs told CTVNews.ca over the phone. “So sometimes people just want to say ‘no, I do have a disability and it’s okay to be identified in that sort of way.”

While Takacs’ own preference is for people-first language, she said there may be a generational gap for people in or advocating for disabled communities.

“There still needs to be some trappings for privacy for some folks my age,” she said, and this may play into people’s acceptance of the use of “disabled person.” But Takacs said younger generations are demanding “why can’t I be upfront about that?”

However, Takacs, a faculty member in the accessibility services department at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, B.C., said person-first language can help in other regards.

She works with students potentially wrestling with their own identity issues surrounding disability or deciding whether to even disclose a disability or accessibility need to one of their professors. So person-first language is more welcoming to those still figuring out who they are.

Woman sitting a wheelchair at bar

“But I think overall the guiding principle is that people don’t want to be identified only as someone who has a disability,” said Takacs, the co-chair of Accessibility and Inclusion Community of Practice for the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services.

“We want to be identified as people who have thoughts and opinions; and a place in the community.”

Everyone CTVNews.ca spoke to stressed that language specificity is always the best approach.

Smith explained that when well-meaning people on university campuses, for example, shy away from using the word “disabled” it can leave disabled people themselves confused.

Smith used the example of some campuses introducing a vaguely-named ‘access centre,’ and joked: “You wonder ‘is that where I get my passport renewed? I just want my disability needs met.”

Hanan Hazime, a Lebanese-Canadian artist and educator, who provides spaces for folks with disabilities, uses the “disabled person” for herself and cares more about whether they’re given proper accommodations or access to resources.

“Instead of arguing over semantics and the politically correct usage of terms, I would prefer folks to actually go out and advocate for disabled people to attain equal rights and better accessibility,” she told CTVNews.ca in an email. “Overall, if folks aren’t intentionally being offensive and are treating me with respect, I am okay with both people-first language and identity-first language.”

Smith feels the term “disabled” is a way for people with varying needs and disabilities to rally together, but echoed Hazime that it’s not an excuse for people not to address their specific needs.

People First of Canada’s communication director, Catherine Rodgers, agreed and gave the example of people saying: “disabled people need more ramps at polling stations,” when they should be saying “people with physical disabilities need more ramps at polling stations.”

The first choice assumed people with disabilities need “the exact same things” and didn’t take into account those who need braille ballots, support staff to help them vote or plain language materials. If people mean to refer to those with wheelchairs, they should so outright.

But Rodgers, who prefers person-first language, supported the use of term “disabled people,” when speaking broadly.

And this ongoing fight for specificity and growing use of the term “disabled persons” has been encouraging for Takacs, whose generation tended to deal with disabilities privately.

“The whole conversation about accessibility and identity really changes and that’s lovely to see.”

Edited by CTVNews.ca Producer Sonja Puzic

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