Words are powerful weapons; the words people use and the way educators portray individuals with disabilities matters greatly in the classroom. Educators, as well as family members of the student with a disability, need to choose words that portray the individual with a disability in a respectful and balanced way that is both neutral, accurate and objective.
Labeling a student with the disability equates them with a condition, which can be disrespectful and dehumanizing. While many students are public about their disability, many students may choose not to be publicly identified as a person with a disability. Historically, people with disabilities have been regarded as individuals to be ignored, pitied or feared. People with disabilities have been portrayed as heroic individuals who have overcome tragedy, as helpless victims and “charity cases” who depend on others for help and care.
In today’s society it is wrong for people to call people who use wheelchairs as “wheel-chair bound” or “confined to a wheel-chair.” The same is for people who have paraplegia – it is wrong to call them “paraplegic”. While there may be a long history of using derogatory terms for those with disabilities, our society is moving away from these falsehoods and entering one were we recognize those with disabilities as individual with lives not at all different from our own.Old mentor texts that are meant to teach children about people with disabilities may contain this language, as well as outdated government, medical and legal documents.
Television shows, fictional novels, movies and other forms of media may also use this outdated language. People with disabilities are continuously seeking to create an accurate representation that presents a positive view of individuals with disabilities as active participants of in regular school, home and work environments. Choosing language that accentuates what people with disabilities can do instead of what they cannot do is empowering. Every individual regardless of their age, sex, race or ability deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. We must recognize that people with disabilities have the same common goals as those who do not. We must recognize that people with disabilities are not their medical diagnosis; they are individuals who strive for the same dreams and ideals as those living without disabilities. If we allow ourselves to stereotype people with disabilities we will only increase the discrimination and segregation of those who are living with a disability in our schools, workforce and our communities.