It’s all about the wordplay

Words to avoid using when dealing with people with disabilities

Labels are hard. Consider racial labels. Have you ever met a black person who is actually black? I’m white, but I’m not white. I’m an interesting combination of golds and pinks. Although after a long winter, I’m closer to white than not.

Or, as has come to light in recent years, gender labels. Someone appearing to be male or female is not the end of it. Do they identify with the sex you think they are? Do they identify as any gender?

Like I said, labels are hard.

And 9 times out of 10, they aren’t chosen by the people to whom they apply, and usually offensive.

The same is true with labels used to refer to people with disabilities. These labels aren’t as charged with tension as racial or gender labels, so they don’t get traction in the media or on the Internet. Still, they can raise quite a few eyebrows, and ruffle none too few feathers.


Oh, how I hate this word. Hearing it uttered – especially if the user is referring to me – is like nails down a chalkboard that lives right inside my head. For a long time, I hated it because I was misinformed on its etymology, but Snopes set me straight. I thought that would sort me out, but the word is no more palatable for knowing its true origins.

It originates from the sports terms “handicapping,” which means to make a stronger opponent weaker, to bring that opponent down to the level of the weaker opponent(s). In time, it came to refer to a physical limitation. On the one hand, you could look at it like the universe thought some of us were going to be SO awesome, we had to be given some disadvantage. On the other hand, there is this idea that people with disabilities are inherently weaker than those without. That is the element I find offensive, the idea of “weakness”. As if being different automatically means being less than.


If you use this word in my presence, the next person you’ll be applying it to is yourself.

Some people are comfortable using the terms “cripple” or “crippled” in reference to themselves, notably author Nancy Mairs. (This link takes you to her essay, On Being a Cripple.) I am decidedly not one of those people.

Even labels most usages of the word “crippled” as offensive. To me, it denotes uselessness. A crippled leg, for instance, would be an unusable leg. Maybe you are useless. I most definitely am not.

Words to avoid using when dealing with people with disabilities

What words would you add?


I use this terminology because it is the least objectionable of the labels available. Of course, that isn’t saying much. Whenever the prefix dis- is added to a word, it comes to mean “not” or “non.” In this case – not able, or non able. Which is patently untrue. Wheelchair users, hearing or visually impaired persons, anyone who is seen to be lacking physically becomes “not able.” It is technically true that I am “not able” to walk, but, trust me, that isn’t a skill necessary to succeeding in life. In the case of labels, being “not able” does not apply to specific tasks or activities. It is “not able” on a grander scale, as in, “not able” to enjoy life, “not able” to succeed, “not able” to live in a meaningful way.

So, even though I am not particularly comfortable with this terminology, I will accept its usage – for now.

Wheelchair-bound/In a Wheelchair

No, no, no, no, no! I use a wheelchair. It is a tool. An important tool, to be sure, but a tool nonetheless. No one has duct-taped or tied me to it. To say a user is bound to a wheelchair is indicative that they cannot get out of it – at all, for any reason.

The same is true for saying someone is “in a wheelchair.” Sometimes I am, sometimes I ain’t. Some people might say this is just semantics, but for me, it is an important distinction.

Handicapable/Physically Challenged/Similar

For the love of God, stop! Referring to someone as “handicapable” is like an oxymoron. All it does is emphasize that the person described is “incapable,” at least as defined by the label user.

This is the quintessential example of putting lipstick on a pig. It is an attempt to gloss over anything that could be perceived negatively by overemphasizing the positive. It is an attempt to try and reassure – not those of us with disabilities, but those without – that people with disabilities are capable, are equal.

It shouldn’t be necessary to have to remind people with every conversation that a person with a disability isn’t “less than”. But, apparently, it is.

Okay, so which label would you prefer?

Hi, I’m Laura. That’s all the label you need.

However, I will accept being referred to as “awesome,” “wicked awesome,” “amazing,” or “magical.” Your choice.

About Laura

Artist, writer, designer and nerdy creative based in Charlotte, NC. Loves Harry Potter, Firefly, Doctor Who, country music, and Nathan Fillion. Wheelchair-user, due to osteogenesis imperfecta aka brittle bone disease.