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The Changing Language of Disabilities

March is National Disability Awareness Month. In general, disabilities can be divided into four categories:

  1. Physical: disabilities thwarting regular body movement and control; i.e. cerebral palsy and spina bifida

  2. Developmental: disabilities originating from mental and/or physical impairments; i.e. autism spectrum disorder

  3. Behavioral or emotional: disabilities that hinder learning and/or building or maintaining interpersonal relationships; i.e. bipolar and attention deficit disorder

  4. Sensory: disabilities obstructing one or more senses; i.e. visual and/or auditory impairment

As society becomes more aware of special needs, recognition of and language surrounding those with impairments has changed. Generally speaking, speech trends surrounding limitations have become more positive rather than negative.

For instance, language emphasizing a person’s lack or inability has been replaced with labels indicating giftedness or uniqueness. An example of this shift would be recognizing someone as a “person using a hearing device” rather than identifying him or her as “deaf.” This linguistic change also accentuates a person’s abilities rather than disabilities.


Living disconnected from those with differing abilities does not benefit either party.


Connecting with others who have differing abilities also develops empathy. For example, a friend whose son is autistic recently began visiting a family whose daughter deals with cerebral palsy. The son began playfully using the daughter’s wheelchair, and my friend asked her parents if this behavior was acceptable. They stated it was and that they did not mind if her son navigated the wheelchair. My friend later realized her son’s use of the device presented opportunities for empathy by allowing him to perceive life from that of someone with cerebral palsy.


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