Independent Living Resource Center
About Having a Disability

Some individuals are born with a disability, others develop a disability, illness or condition, and some acquire a disability through a physical trauma that might occur in a work accident, vehicle crash, sports activity or while serving in the military. Some are age-related disabilities, affecting us because medical advances allow us to live longer.

Most Americans expect to be able to decide how and where they live, work, shop, dine, vote, socialize and recreate, and get around (transportation). They consider this “an inalienable right” – the freedom and choice to do the things they want to do, when and where they wish.

For people with disabilities, however, there are physical, comunication and attitudinal barriers in our communities that limit or eliminate choice. Some barriers are obvious: a building entrance at the top of a flight of stairs with no ramp or signage to the accessible entrance, for example. This excludes a person who uses a wheelchair from entering this building. Less obvious (but no less profound) barriers include the lack of sign language interpreters or captioning for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, or a lack of written materials made available in Braille or on tape for people who are blind or low-vision.  
“People-First” Language
and Non-Stigmatizing Language

When describing someone using people-first language, one puts the person before the trait. Thus we say “person with a disability,” rather than “disabled person.” (The word “handicapped” is antiquated and offensive to most people; it derives from 1800s England when people with disabilities would beg in the streets with their “cap in hand.”)


Language is always evolving. The words we choose and use can, and do, affect societal and media attitudes. Even well-meaning people who don’t believe they are prejudiced can subtly send a negative message with the language they use.


For example, if someone were to say, “I never think of you as disabled,” the underlying meaning is, “You don’t seem disabled… so long as you continue to do well,” or “You do a good job fitting in with us,” or “you hide it well.” Why is this stigmatizing, or perpetuating a negative attitude? Because the implication is that a person with a disability is different than “the rest of us” and should work to fit in or hide their disability.


Avoid using words like “victim” or “sufferer”; it presumes the person is in agony or perpetually helpless. Rather, choose words like “stroke survivor” or “person with MS.”


There are other neutral terms to use as well.
The Stigma of Disability

Sometimes a stigma, or negative perspective, forms around a segment of the population. It is usually based on a civil rights issue, such as the color of one’s skin, or their gender or sexual orientation. Immigration reform is fighting a stigma against undocumented workers who were not born in this country. And the disability community continues to struggle with the stigma that comes from societal or cultural misunderstanding or fear of disability.


Many people talk freely about having limitations around certain mental or physical functions but do not identify themselves as a “person with a disability.” This may be due to fear of discrimination or the social stigma or cultural attitudes that have long prevailed against people who are “different” than the majority for one reason or another.


A disability is simply an attribute, such as being blonde, or having blue eyes, or being tall; it’s a descriptor. It is neither good nor bad; it just is. If you happen to have long hair, you are no better or worse than someone with short hair. If you have a disability, you are “just as good” as anyone without a disability. In other words, we are all equal.
Use/Dont Use Language