Four Disability Euphemisms That Need to Bite the Dust

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Four Disability Euphemisms That Need to Bite the Dust

By Emily Ladau

Three young people with various skin tones and abilities grouped close together with arms around shoulders. The middle person is wearing glasses and all three are smiling broadly.One of the biggest disparities surrounding disability is the language people use to refer to it. I prefer to be a straight shooter and keep things simple by using the term “disabled person.” Other people choose alternative euphemisms to avoid saying that. While I know some people genuinely embrace words other than “disabled”—even some people who actually have disabilities – I just can’t get on board with that.

Of course, I can’t presume to speak for anyone other than myself, and everyone should have the right to choose how to refer to themselves so long as they don’t impose it upon anyone else. However, when non-disabled people try to dance around the word “disabled” in an effort to be more respectful, I don’t think they realize the hidden ableism behind the euphemisms. It demonstrates an assumption that “disabled” is a negative quality or derogatory word, when, in fact, disabled is what I am. It is, in my opinion, the plainest, simplest, most straightforward, and least offensive way to refer to what my body can and cannot do. So, next time you hesitate to say “disabled,” consider why I wish these four alternate terms would kick the bucket:

1. Challenged
Having a disability definitely makes some things more difficult for me, but we all face challenges on a daily basis, regardless of ability. This makes it frustrating when people call me “challenged” because it makes me feel like my existence is a problem. In reality, most of my challenges stem from circumstances I encounter in the world around me. Instances of discrimination and environmental access barriers that disabled people experience are not our fault. We are challenged by people who perpetuate stigmas about disability; we are challenged by people who cannot be bothered to make locations accessible; we are challenged by inadequate legislation. But to call us challenged when we are neither the cause of our challenges, nor the only humans who deal with challenges, is quite unfair, don’t you think?

2. Handicapable
This term drives me up the wall. It’s so cutesy and dripping with condescension, almost like a verbal pat on the head. I don’t need sugary-sweet reminders that I am capable of things just because I have a disability. I already know that, because every human has capabilities and limitations. Even so, I’ve encountered the rare disabled person who uses “handicapable” in a completely un-ironic way, and I just don’t get it. I know many non-disabled people who say “handicapable” do so with the intention of showing that they don’t “see” disability or that it’s not a big deal, but disability is part of a disabled person. My disability doesn’t make me feel like less of a person, but calling me “handicapable” does. In fact, the only thing I think of when I hear it is that “the handicapable” would be a good name for a brand of kitchen gadgets at Walmart or Bed, Bath, and Beyond.

3. Differently-abled
Let’s think about this one for a moment, because it’s actually loaded with prejudiced assumptions. Essentially, “differently-abled” implies that there’s such a thing as a standard body that possesses standard abilities. The problem with this? There’s not. No two people are able to do exactly the same things in exactly the same ways. Some people are able to walk on their feet. Some people are able to roll in a wheelchair. Some people can touch their tongue to their nose. Some people can contort like a pretzel. So, to be technically correct, disabled people aren’t the only ones who are differently-abled. We all are.

4. Special Needs
Why, oh why is this still such a common term? It makes no sense to me. By much the same logic that explains why “differently-abled” is inaccurate, it’s clear that “special needs” is too. If you are a human, you have needs.

Everyone has needs. What makes mine so “special” just because I have a disability? Nothing.

My needs are not “special” just because they’re not met in ways identical to the needs of non-disabled people. I need a ramp; you need steps. Not special, just facts. I need a wheelchair; you walk.Not special, just facts. Moreover, the needs of non-disabled people certainly aren’t all met in the same ways. Just like every other living, breathing human being on this planet, I am a person who has needs that must be fulfilled in ways appropriate to my abilities.

Whether you’re disabled or non-disabled, I urge you to realize why euphemisms really aren’t a show of respect, no matter how well meaning your intent might be. They can be disempowering, patronizing, and even hurtful. So please, just call me a disabled woman, because that’s who I am, and that’s who I’m proud to be.

This article was reprinted with permission. Emily Ladau is a writer and disability rights activist whose passion is to harness the powers of language and social media as tools for people to become informed and engaged social justice advocates. She maintains a blog, Words I Wheel By, as a platform to address discrimination and to encourage people to understand the experience of having a disability in more positive, accepting, and supportive ways. Her website is



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