Using Language to Display Cultural Sensitivity to Individuals with Disabilities

EKU Online > Using Language to Display Cultural Sensitivity to Individuals with Disabilities

The way we use language is important and can have a large impact on how we make people feel. We can reinforce negative stereotypes and biases, or we can promote empowerment and individuality. You likely would not want to be introduced only as “the short woman” or “the old man” or “the black person”. That would make you feel marginalized and defined by one aspect of who you are.

Using “people first language” reflects the individuality and equality of people with disabilities (National Disability Institute, n.d., p. 7). Instead of saying that man is a schizophrenic, you should say he is a person with schizophrenia. Likewise, you should say person with epilepsy versus the epileptic and woman with a visual impairment versus blind woman.

Microaggressions are statements that, while well-meaning, cause feelings of belittlement in people with disabilities. Some examples are, “you people are so inspiring,” “I am so proud that you are able to get married,” and “you seem so normal”. Other statements to avoid include, “can I pray for you?” and “I couldn’t do that; you are so strong”.  

Why is language-focused cultural sensitivity important? A lack of cultural sensitivity can cause those with disabilities to feel:

  • Inadequate
  • Defined by their disability
  • Isolated and ashamed
  • On the other hand, becoming culturally sensitive can help those with disabilities feel:
  • Empowered
  • Equal
  • Less Isolated

People with disabilities are all ages and come from diverse backgrounds and financial situations. We work, we have families, and we have goals and dreams. You can make a difference with changes in the language you use in your encounters with this population, and it is powerful to realize the large impact these small changes can have. 

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By: Jaclynn Barnhart, EKU social work student


National Disability Institute. (n.d.). Disability Sensitivity Guide.

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