Language is Incredibly Important

Throughout my essay “The Importance of Website Accessibility in an Increasingly Digital Society: Why the Official Websites of Legally Recognized Businesses should be Required to Meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines as Maintained by The World Wide Web Consortium”, I used various language to refer to people with disabilities. One of the terms that I used on multiple occasions was “differently-abled”.

I chose the term “differently-abled” because it was my understanding that this was a more politically correct way to refer to those with disabilities – using what I considered to be positive language (by using “differently-abled” to suggest that those with disabilities just have different abilities that those who do not have disabilities – even as I’m writing this now, I can see where the issue with this lies), instead of using what I considered to be potentially negative language (since disabled literally means “not able”, I assumed this could be potentially offensive to some).

Tonight, while doing some research on various terminology used within the disabled community, it came to my attention that I was very wrong about this. In fact, the National Center on Disability and Journalism states, of the term “differently-abled”:

This term came into vogue in the 1990s as an alternative to “disabled,” “handicapped” or “mentally retarded.” Currently, it is not considered appropriate (and for many, never was).  Some consider it condescending, offensive or simply a way of avoiding talking about disability. Others prefer it to “disabled” because “dis” means “not,” which means that “disabled” means “not able.” But particularly when it comes to referring to individuals, “differently abled” is problematic. As some advocates observe, we are all differently abled.

National Center on Disability and Journalism

Instead, they suggest that “person with a disability” is a more neutral term than “differently-abled”, and would be preferable in a situation such as mine, where I am often writing directly about those with disabilities. It was never my intention to use terminology that could be considered offensive, and to anyone who has taken offense at the way I’ve worded things within my essay, I truly apologize.

Going forward, even before I continue my research on Website Accessibility, I will be doing more extensive research on what language is considered acceptable (and what language could be considered, or is considered offensive), to ensure I can refer to people with disabilities in a way that conveys the respect I have for them, and am intending to give them throughout my writing.

While I tend to consider myself fairly well-versed in the issue of Website Accessibility, all of the knowledge in the world will mean nothing if I am unable to convey my message in a respectful way; especially when referring to the group of people who would benefit most from comprehensive Website Accessibility regulations. Being able to address people with disabilities in a way that empowers them, and conveys to my audience that disability is not a bad or taboo thing, will ultimately help the need for fully-accessible websites to be more widely-realized.


Additional Troubling Language

While my use of the term “differently-abled” was by far (at least from what I can tell) my worst offense when referring to people with disabilities through my essay, I did find one instance where I used the term “able-bodied” to refer to the “counterparts” of those with disabilities. The National Center on Disability and Journalism also addressed this term in their Disability Language Style Guide, and I will be refraining from using it in the future as well, opting instead for terms like “not disabled” or “not living with a disability”.

In addition to my use of “differently-abled” and “able-bodied”, I will be going through my essay again and taking note of the various language I’ve used when referring to those living both with and without disabilities, to ensure that the language I am using is considered both appropriate, and politically correct.


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