Politically Correct Disability Words: What’s Right?! (with Star Trek gifs)

I’ve had one disability or another for most of my life, and been a member of the Down syndrome community by virtue of being a parent of a child with Down syndrome for 5 years, and I’ve seen a certain cycle repeat itself countless times:

Something happens with a word: someone famous says something offensive (- usually involving the word, “retard”)

  • The disability and/or Down syndrome community bellows
  • The famous person or situation or whatever apologizes
  • The disability and/or Down syndrome community simmers down.
  • …and repeat

I know people from the disability and Down syndrome communities are sick of it, but I also know that there is a certain amount of weariness that is felt by members outside of our community. That is, people who care about us and our kids, people who want to be our friends and allies, people who want to do and say the right thing.

And the weariness easily switches to wariness.

Like, nervousness about saying something offensive. When is a word okay? How is a world okay? If the word is okay with YOU, will it be okay with THEM? Is that person over there going to jump on me? But wait – YOU said it was okay, YOU say that yourself -? Arrrrrghhhh!

I completely get it and I don’t think there are easy answers because I think so much of this depends on individual preference. There are no universal agreed-upon guidelines. That makes it tricky, you know, for allies to the disabled/Down syndrome communities.

They say “people with disabilities” and you say “disabled.” But that girl using a wheelchair says “gimp” or “crip”. You are not a “person with deafness”, you are a “deaf person” but Moxie is not a “Down syndrome child”; she’s a “person with Down syndrome.”

It’s person first language…until it’s not.

Then you get the really fun stuff: Archaic Words!

Those are words that have evolved but still carry some of their original meaning. Moron, idiot, cretin, mongo all fall under that – as well as retard. So, what do you do? Do you say none? What if you want to use the actual meaning of the word in a correct context, like “retard growth”? What if you forget? What if you never knew? What if you SUCK and just MESS UP and someone catches you and you are proved to be a COMPLETELY INSENSITIVE and HURTFUL HUMAN BEING?!!!!!!

Oh, you monster.


Politically Correct Disability Words

No easy answers. I don’t know what to say, really, because I know if I tell you something, someone else will be telling you something different. And then the person over in that group over there is going to tell you it’s all balderdash anyway

In the end, it’s your call.

You have to suss it out in your gut, do what feels right. Because it really is like Eleanor Roosevelt says, “do what you feel in your heart to be right- for you’ll be criticized anyway. You’ll be damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”


Some general advice and definitions for “politically correct disability words” though. Me to you, and if you are reading and have something to add, please chime in!

  1. “special needs” is an educational term, not a disability term
  2. “disability” is a particular way of seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking, moving, learning, sensing, being
  3. deaf first (- deaf lady)
  4. saying ‘disabled’ is fine; ‘person with a disability’ is fine too.
  5. slurs… why slur anyway? just stick with good, solid English cuss words. Can’t go wrong. Cuss, not slur!
  6. when you don’t know… ASK