Discarding Language that is Hurtful to Persons with Disabilities


RESPECTFUL DISABILITY LANGUAGE (RDL) is concerned with the subtleties of the terminology used to refer to, or to communicate with persons with disabilities (PwDs). For example, a people-first approach shuns identification through disability, thus “people who are blind” is preferred to “blind people”; while an identity-first approach indicates that the disability forms a large part of the person’s identity. Ultimately, the choice of using either people-first or disability-first jargon is for the PwD to decide.

But RDL extends beyond words to include gestures, actions and body language.

Chew Sui Teng was born blind and like many other PwDs, is no stranger to rude and derogatory remarks. She recalls having accidentally “bumped” into a fellow student once while walking in the school grounds. “The student turned and sarcastically asked if I was blind. I was holding my white cane, and when I replied that I was, the person walked off without an apology.”

“I find that even in my presence, most people are more comfortable talking to my friend about me, than speaking to me directly. People assume that just because I’m blind, I must be mute as well.”

Chew adds that indirect communication with PwDs is common and revealing of the people involved as well. “I find that even in my presence, most people are more comfortable talking to my friend about me, than speaking to me directly. People assume that just because I’m blind, I must be mute as well,” she says.

Out with the Old, In with the New

Malaysians are not good at RDL, says Khoo Jie Ying, co-founder and teacher of LEAP Intervention Centre, a school that provides intervention programmes for children and adolescents with diverse learning abilities.

“I would sometimes come across words like ‘autistic’ in magazines and newspapers,” she says. The tendency to use ableist language, i.e. words used to discriminate in favour of able-bodied people, and passive victim words are still glaringly obvious. “The media exerts a strong influence in shaping society’s thought processes, and to affect positive and tangible changes in addressing PwDs, terminologies such as this needs to be phased out.”

Words, actions and communication are important. They affect how we think and act, and what our attitudes are towards other people.1 Based on her observation as an able-bodied student at Universiti Sains Malaysia, which currently has close to 50 PwD students, Maiyuri Santha Kumaran says that, “When able-bodied individuals get corrected, they tend to be offended. That shouldn’t be the case. When someone educates you, try to understand them, rather than defending your stance. You might not have ill intent, yet it may still hurt people. Try looking at it from a PwD’s point of view, that’s the least abled people like us can do.”


From left: Khoo Jie Ying, Chong Khuan Chean, Maiyuri Santha Kumaran, an able-bodied student at USM, and Jasniza Johari.

Additionally, a wide range of vocabulary and terminologies are being introduced to respectfully refer to PwDs. For example, “cripple” and “spastic” have been replaced with “disabled person”, and “mental handicap” with “intellectual disability”. “It’s good that we are witnessing such changes happening during our lifetime because reconfiguring perceptions do take a long while.

When we are aware of these things, we can educate people to not use certain words,” says Chong Khuan Chean of LEAP.

Be that as it may, more can be done to heighten awareness of RDL. But society at large cannot solely depend on a particular group’s efforts. A unified voice is required.

The best way to tackle this is to start them young. Khoo explains, “Children look up to and learn from us adults; we are their role models. They don’t just copy our words, but our actions as well. So if you are a good role model and are respectful to people regardless of who they are, children will follow suit.”

And as adults, positive experiences and interactions with PwDs can easily start off a butterfly effect. “I encountered a similar situation myself,” shares Jasniza Johari, also from LEAP, “and because I learned and passed the experience on, I strongly believe that a change, no matter how small, can have a big impact on society.”

The RDL is the butter to the bread of diversity and inclusion. “PwDs are not a separate entity, we come from the same community as able-bodied individuals. My hope is that able-bodied people can overcome their uneasiness so we can get to know one another better,” says Chew.

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