Language. by Kate Marsh

The language used to describe, discuss and represent disability has a history of dividing opinion. The etymology of key words and phrases associated with impairment gives an insight into shifting perceptions of disability over periods of history. The term ‘Handicapped’, widely rejected in current UK discourse, holds negative connotations and has been rejected, in particular, by individuals and organisations championing the rights of people with disabilities. A brief inspection of the history of this term indicates that it is synonymous with themes of burden or carrying extra ‘weight.’ There is one school of thought suggesting that handicapped is derived from “hand in cap” a description of ‘cripples’ begging. Another theory relates to the term handicapped as disadvantaged in some way, take the golfing metaphor for example. Whatever the definition it is not a term promoting positivity and equality.

As a research team, we have talked about language surrounding disability and as a person with a disability these discussions have brought my attention to my own preferences and interpretations of words and phrases employed to discuss or describe disability. There is something about labelling with language that is prominent in my own personal feelings on this matter, as a teenager I strongly rebelled against the term disabled or any kind of title with my ‘one handedness’ at its core, I did not want to be perceived as ‘different’ from my non-disabled peers.

As an adult, with more experience and frankly greater exposure to other people with disabilities, I started to feel proud of this “label.” History and habit still means that the word handicapped provokes a negative reaction in me, but I am generally happy and indeed pleased to describe myself as disabled/a person with a disability or a person with an impairment. There is also much debate around these terms, and this debate is important, the unpacking of terminology and its associated meaning and interpretation has been and continues to be central to the rights and voices of people with a disability or impairment. There is a valid discussion to be had around disabled versus impaired. Professor Mike Oliver offers a useful definition of Impairment as ‘individual limitation’ and disability as ‘socially imposed restriction.’ Even within these definitions there seems to be a potential further discussion around the terms ‘limitation’ and ‘restriction’, my point here is that the debate is key. Historically individuals with impairment were relatively passive in the language used to talk about their own bodies and terminology originated from medical definitions of impairment. I welcome discussion - and argument over terminology, critical discourse from a range of communities, disabled and non-disabled, activists and policy makers, can only draw greater focus on the voices of people with disabilities.

I feel about the term disabled rather the same way as I feel about my maiden name, I have associated myself with the word for quite some time, and truthfully it has defined me, and provided me with many opportunities. I do not wish to be reduced to my disability alone., I do find, however, that the term gives me sense of belonging in a wider community, which is empowering in many ways.

What is particularly interesting as we progress with our team research is that the discussion is actually happening. I have experienced situations where a fear of saying the ‘wrong’ word leads people to say nothing. To me this is far more damaging than any conversation or debate about which term is best. I have found that the most effective means for progression and shifting perceptions is to communicate about disability. For example I do not like the term handicapped, equally I am no fan of ‘differently abled’. I have no wish to impose my preferences on others, however, expressing my view of these terms is key to maintaining a debate and without debate The fear of ‘getting it wrong’ could halt progression and lead to assumption and polite skirting around issues.

I have learnt through my practice in dance and in particular the dance and disability sector, that communication, verbal and non-verbal, is central to examining ways of working and training. I have experienced or seen many scenarios whereby a dancer with an impairment is left to find his or her own adaptations in a class or workshop, maybe because the language used to talk about impaired bodies feels like such a controversial area. The body in this instance just isn’t referred to at all. We need to talk about each individual body in dance, there is no ‘one size fits all’ this might mean we get it ‘wrong’ or will be corrected by someone, but the most valuable thing is to keep the debate going, in doing this we are questioning assumption and acknowledging the essential choice of the individual to decide the language of her own body and her experiences.


Oliver, M (1993) Disabling Barriers – Enabling Environments, SAGE publications p.17

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