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Removing Labels: Politically Correct Disability Terms

written by: Linda M. Rhinehart Neas • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 7/12/2012

In today's inclusive classrooms, understanding and using politically correct terms for students with disabilities makes a difference. Bullying, name-calling and other acts of verbal assault are the result of ignorance. Teaching students about disabilities promotes tolerance and acceptance of others.

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    Sticks and Stones

    As a girl growing up, I remember hearing kids calling others "retarded." The day I used the term for the first time, my mother scolded me, explaining that it was not nice to use such a term. In her great wisdom, she explained to me that the child I had referred to had Down Syndrome, which limited the child's intellect, but not necessarily his/her ability to do things. Years ahead of the politically correct movement, she taught me a valuable lesson.

    A few years later, I felt the sting of the thoughtless use of words when I heard a peer refer to me as "four-eyes" after I came to school with my new glasses for the first time. It took me a long time to feel confident in wearing my glasses after that incident. For most of my pre-teen and teenage years, I hid the fact that I wore glasses.

    Words, when used carelessly, hurt as much as any injury. It is imperative that educators understand and use terms for students with disabilities that explain not ridicule or humiliate. Using these terms helps to maintain the student's dignity, opening the door for meaningful dialogue about the student's special needs as well as recognizing that the student is first and foremost, a person like all the other students in the class.

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    Using the Correct Words

    Whenever we label a person, we take away his or her humanity. To say that someone is "a cripple" or "an autistic" objectifies him or her. The most important thing to remember is always to speak of the person first. Therefore it would be, "the student with autism," rather than "the autistic student." Being politically correct is a call to see the person, first and foremost.

    Equally important is to beware of using terms like — disadvantaged, challenged, handicapped or defective. Students with disabilities are no more disadvantaged as others, unless treated that way. Describing students as challenged or differently-abled has become euphemisms; it is best not to use them. Use the term handicapped only to illustrate how something restricts a student's ability to do something, as in, My student was handicapped by the inability to enter the theater due to lack of an accessible entry. To state that a student as having a defect or is defective is simply not acceptable. In addition, avoid terms such as "confined to a wheelchair" or "disabled toilet or parking space." Instead, use the terms, the student in a wheelchair or the student who uses a wheelchair, the accessible toilet or accessible parking space.

    The following is a list of preferred, politically correct terms for students with disabilities:

    • visually impaired
    • blind (only when the student cannot see anything)
    • deaf (only when a student cannot hear anything)
    • hard of hearing
    • intellectually disabled
    • a student with Down Syndrome
    • a student with cerebral palsy

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    Teaching Mindfulness

    The ability to see past a person's differences comes down to the ability to be mindful. Teaching students to "see" mindfully enables them to be aware of the other's feelings, to see the other as an equal, not less than.

    According to Megan Cowan, co-founder and director of the Mindful Schools Program, "Mindfulness, when applied appropriately, includes the qualities of awareness (paying attention to one’s experience through the senses and the mind); of non-judgment (not labeling things “good” or “bad” but rather observing with a neutral attitude); and of stillness in heart and mind (though the body may be moving)."

    Observing with a neutral attitude allows students to see the person, not the deformity or illness. Observing with a neutral attitude requires practice, but once mastered, accompanies the student throughout their life.

    To teach mindfulness, the teacher should have his or her own contemplative practice. Students spend some time each day practicing mindfulness. They are quiet, still and with eyes closed. This practice helps students to quiet their minds and focus on learning, in addition, it helps them to learn to think about situations rather than jumping into them mindlessly.

    After spending time quieting their minds,

    • Present to the students a discussion on differences. Help them negotiate their feelings, fears and understandings.
    • Gently correct terms that are misused.
    • Guide them through the language of disabilities.

    Remember that this is most likely a new language to the students; help them to understand not only the terms, but also the importance of using the terms correctly.

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    People First

    Language is not static. It changes as the need, awareness and times demand. Using politically correct terms for students with disabilities is an ongoing task, of which educators in inclusive classrooms need to stay aware. For instance, at one time saying that a student was differently-abled was considered correct. However, after years of overuse, it has become a euphemism.

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