The evolution of disability language and labels

Language is constantly evolving. Here is a short guide to how disability language and terms are evolving and why.

Two wheelchair icons: one that is passive and one that shows active movement.

Chances are if you’ve come across this article, you have questions about disability language or labels or want to check in on what’s respectful to say these days. Perhaps you met your newest coworker who uses a wheelchair and hesitated to approach them for fear of saying the wrong thing. We’re here to say it’s okay, and we’re happy to walk you through the disability language landscape.

Here are some common questions that’ll be addressed in this guide:

Why we no longer use handicap, handicapped, or Handicapable

 Unlike the terms mentioned below, “handicap” is rarely, if ever, used by disability community to describe a person with disabilities. At Perkins, we do not use this word in any form of communication.

Origins of handicap

The origins of “handicap” can help us understand why folks within the disability community find it offensive — because it is. The first uses of the term “handicap” referred to a popular English game in the 16th century, which later became tied to horse betting and gradually other games. By the end of the 18th century, the use of “handicap” evolved when people began to use it to refer to people with a mental or physical disability. So, how did we get from games to people?

At the time, it was common to encounter people with disabilities begging on the street with a cap in hand.”

Laura Dennison, teacher at Perkins School for the Blind

One of Perkins’ Activism and Advocacy Class teachers, Laura Dennison, explained that, at the time, it was common to encounter people with disabilities begging on the street with “a cap in hand”. That visibility could be why the term stuck around for so long.

In today’s world, “handicap” is still widely used in public spaces like parking lots and bathroom signs, which poses the question: when do we enact change?

Updating icons is a good start

In 2010, design activists from the Accessible Icon Project decided that the International Symbol of Access, originally created in the 1960s, needed an update. The old symbol is viewed as stiff and passive, whereas the new symbol has life and motion. The figure in the wheelchair is taking charge of their own movement as an empowered individual!

Twenty three years later, the updated symbol has yet to be adopted by the U.S. Access Board, which sets the federal standard for Accessible Design. Despite this, the updated symbol is embraced by many. From parking lot signage to Google Maps, you probably see it every day without realizing it. The Museum Of Modern Art even added the new symbol to its permanent collection.

Some disability advocates aren’t on board for either version of the symbol, wishing for an alternative that would depict more disabilities than just those associated with wheelchairs. At Perkins, we’re always thinking about how to improve, especially when it comes to representation and advocacy for people with disabilities — but, people are complex! 

Condensing every person’s experiences into one symbol is no easy task. Our approach is to utilize a suite of iconography that represents multiple perspectives.

Understanding disability language nuances: deafblind, Deafblind, Deaf-blind, or DeafBlind

Deafblindness means a person has some degree of both vision and hearing loss. Deafblindness, or Deafblind, has also been spelled DeafBlindness and Deaf-Blind. Many people also refer to it in lowercase: “deafblind”, as well as the uppercase “DeafBlind.”

Perkins uses the lowercase spelling. According to Jennifer Arnott, a research librarian at our Samuel P. Hayes Research Library, this is “in part because not all of our students who are deafblind in educational or other legal terms may identify as culturally DeafBlind.”

The National Center on Deafblindness updated their stance in October 2023 to use the lowercase spelling “deafblind.” The capitalization of the D and B in DeafBlind is important to those who identify culturally as DeafBlind — similar to the Deaf community and the broader Disability community. Some people can be medically diagnosed as deafblind, but do not identify as a part of the DeafBlind community.

All these reasons are why it’s best practice to ask the person you’re communicating with about their preference.

When we capitalize braille

Braille, the world’s most popular tactile reading and writing system, was adapted from a military code by a 15 year old in the early 1800s. Some braille users feel strongly about capitalizing the word no matter where it appears. Why? They’re passionate about paying homage to its father, Louis Braille. Others feel that braille should be capitalized like English or French.

But, braille is technically a code, not a language.

According to the Braille Authority of America (BANA), the standard-setting body for braille in the U.S. and Canada, the word “braille” is an eponym, or a word that comes from someone’s name. Like other eponyms (i.e. “sandwich,” “watt”), braille has become an important and recognized word in language and is a common way of reading in today’s society. In BANA’s view, braille has “acquired the right to appear in the language as a lowercase word.” In other words, by consistently capitalizing it, we’d make it seem unusual, like it represents special treatment.

How to navigate visually impaired, low vision, and blind

What’s the difference between “low vision,” “visually impaired” and being “blind”? Simply put: there isn’t a difference because blindness is a spectrum.

Like most things, one size doesn’t fit all. For Kayla — a Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI) at Perkins who has an inherited retinal disease called retinitis pigmentosa (RP) — “visually impaired” is a helpful umbrella term she uses that’s inclusive of low vision. But, that leads some to confuse “low vision” with “blind,” even though folks with low vision are sighted. “They get stuck in the middle,” said Kayla.

Contrary to what her teaching certification states, Kayla actually prefers “Teacher of the Blind and Visually Impaired” because it offers more clarity about her students’ lived experiences.

Noye — a TVI at Perkins with albinism — agrees that the term “visually impaired” can be used when educating people about the blindness spectrum, especially on social media. “A lot of people think you can either see or you can’t,” said Noye, but there’s nuance. That’s where each individual’s story comes in.

Disability language is constantly evolving as people and attitudes change. In 2021, the New York Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities released a guide about “disability-inclusive terminology.” The guide describes “impaired” as having a negative connotation when paired with “visually” and “hearing.”

Drawing from her expertise as a disability advocate, Executive Director of Perkins Library Kim Charlson, who is blind, shared that the larger community is reaching for “blind” or “low vision” identifiers. This way, folks within the blindness spectrum can be represented as they are without feeling like there’s something wrong with them.

Disability language checklist and guide

So, how do we navigate all of these terms and phrases in an ever-evolving world? What actions can help clear up the confusion? For instance, Laura Dennison thought a nationwide survey of those within the disability community would be a great way to gauge how folks feel about these specific terms.

Until that happens, all we can do is listen, learn, and support one another as we build a more inclusive world. When in doubt, consult our evolving disability language checklist.

A 3-step checklist

With just three steps, this checklist will empower you to navigate any evolving term or phrase.

Terms and examples

Here’s an archive of evolving terms and some of the latest insights from the disability community.

Alternates for handicap

Instead of: “That’s a handicapped parking space” or “That’s a handicapped restroom.”

Try: “That’s an accessible parking space/restroom” or “That’s a parking space/restroom for a person with a disability.”

Deafblind, deafblind, Deaf-Blind, DeafBlind

It’s always best to ask the person’s preference, but a respectful choice is to refer to “person-first language“ until the person tells you otherwise. Remember, capitalizing ‘DeafBlind’ refers to the community and culture.

Instead of: “Robert teaches students who are DeafBlind” or “Robert teaches Deaf-Blind students.”

Try: “Robert teaches students who are deafblind.”

Capitalizing braille

When referring to the language code, use lowercase. When referring to the person, use uppercase.

Instead of: “I’m loving my new Braille book.”

Try: “I’m loving my new braille book.”

Alternates for visually impaired

Instead of: “My sister, Sophie, is visually impaired.”

Try: “My friend, Kara, is blind” or “My brother, George, has low vision.”

Thank you to the Perkins Archives, Hayes Research Library, Alina Lacombe, Laura Dennison, Kim Charlson, Chinonyerem “Noye” Enwereji, Kate Crohan, and Kayla Marks.

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