Disability or Disabled? Which Term is Right?

Glossary and Definitions

Ian C. Langtree - Content Writer/Editor for Disabled World
Published: 2011/09/01 - Updated: 2024/03/30
Publication Type: Informative
Contents: Summary - Introduction - Main - Related

Synopsis: The words disability and disabled describe functional limitations that affect one or more major life activities such as walking, lifting, learning, breathing and everyday day tasks. Disability and Disabled generally describe functional limitations. Calling a person disabled is almost always considered correct. A disability is broadly defined as a condition or function judged to be significantly impaired relative to the usual standard of an individual or group.


Disabled and Disability

A disability is broadly defined as a condition or function judged to be significantly impaired relative to the usual standard of an individual or group. The term is used to refer to individual functioning, including physical impairment, sensory impairment, cognitive impairment, intellectual impairment mental illness, and various types of chronic disease.

Main Digest

Different laws and countries define disability differently. Conventional definitions of "disabled" and "disability" stem from social service programs and benefits programs, such as Social Security. These definitions, dating back many years (See Deborah Stone's book "The Disabled State ") uniformly used the term "disabled" or "disability" to mean "unable" - to work, to handle gainful employment, etc. If you look up definitions of "disabled" you'll find these kinds of definitions.

"Disability" and "Disabled" are terms that are undergoing change due to the disability rights movement both in the U.S. and U.K. To a lesser extent this is occurring worldwide. To most people today, the term "disabled" still means just that, and, more broadly, means "unable to perform" this or that physical or mental function. Even more broadly, a large group of physical or mental conditions are considered to be "disabilities" - things people have also called "afflictions" or "impairments" or "injuries" or "diseases."

Beginning in the 1970s, people labeled as "disabled" (Either because they fell under the Social Security definition or because they had some sort of injury or condition considered a "disability") began seeking changes in society that would allow them to have a better life. Since the 1980s, this effort has generally been termed "disability rights" advocacy or "disability rights activism." The term is "disability rights" - not "disabled rights" or "handicapped rights" simply because historically and politically that's the term that the activists themselves have come to call it. So, the correct term is "Disability Rights."

Many people still use "handicapped" or "crippled" or "afflicted." None of these terms is looked upon with favor by anyone in the organized U.S. or U.K. disability rights movement. "Handicapped" is truly detested in U.K. circles. Handicapped is offensive - it's a limiting term.

Dancing Around the Term "Disability"

The term "challenged" is just sugar coating, as is impaired, diversability, Diffability (Differbility) a word combination of "different" and‎ "ability", neurodiverse, or any other "flavor of the day" word that attempts to "dance around" or merely "paper shuffling" by incessant arguing between the Politically Correct (PC) crowd as to which word(s) are in fashion today or, according to them, should be used, instead of concentrating all that pointless emotional energy - the feeling sensation and physiological reaction that makes a specific emotion positive or negative - on the many very real issues that people with a disability actually REALLY need changing! In fact, the use of person-first language in scholarly writing may actually accentuate stigma - (WILEY).


Calling a person disabled - not THE disabled, but a disabled person - is almost always considered correct. This is the primary term used in the UK and among academics and activists in the United States.

"The phrased "disabled people" is an example of identity-first language (in contrast to people-first language). It is the preferred terminology in Great Britain and by a growing number of U.S. disability activists. Syracuse University's Disability Cultural Center says, "The basic reason behind members of (some disability) groups' dislike for the application of people-first language to themselves is that they consider their disabilities to be inseparable parts of who they are." For example, they prefer to be referred to as "autistic," "blind" or "disabled." Several U.S. disability groups have always used identity-first terms, specifically the culturally Deaf community and the autistic rights' community." - https://ncdj.org/style-guide/#disabledpeople

A term that grew in popularity during the first part of the 20th Century was "handicapped." The conventional wisdom has it that this was a term first used by the social service field; its intent was to focus on social conditions: to say that an individual was "handicapped" by such and such - by paralysis, by being kept out of buildings, whatever. (It is not true, as some have said, that the term comes from "cap in hand", see snopes.com for a discussion of this). The term comes from sports: handicapping means assigned some extra burden, or weight.

Back to the birth of today's disability rights movement: budding activists disliked having been "defined" by the social service system basically rebelled against the term "handicapped" SIMPLY BECAUSE IT HAD BEEN ASSIGNED TO THEM BY OTHERS - and, in choosing a new term, chose "disabled." Anecdote has it that Judy Heumann led the change, arguing that "others handicap us, but we are disabled people" - this is not in any way an exact quote, but it carries the flavor of Heumann's thinking. So, activists in the U.S. began using "disabled" - As in "disabled person."

Continued below image.
Man standing using adult walker frame inside room.
Man standing using adult walker frame inside room.


Then a movement came along to change the wording to "people first language" - so, it was argued, use the term "people with disabilities." Britain's disability rights theorists and disability studies leaders reject that, and stick with "disabled person." Currently, in the U.S.A. activists seem divided. We must keep in mind that the disability rights movement and its thinking is almost unknown outside the movement itself! - People First Language: An Oppositional Viewpoint.


They are not dismissing the fact that they are disabled - but they are dismissing it as a negative experience. I am autistic. I am an aspie. I am deaf. I am blind. I am disabled.

What is Diversability?

The term Diversability is currently yet another movement as the preferred term to replace the word "disability and disabilities".

The word "disabilities" is said to be associated with the past and people's negative experiences with institutions. The term Diversability however embraces the uniqueness and potential in every human being, disabled or non-disabled.

However, just like the term neurodiversity, and the opposition to people first language movement, not everyone agrees with the definition and use of the word "diversability". The word diversability is still seen by many, as well as people with disabilities, as a defining label to describe people with physical, emotional, and cognitive challenges.

The Bad Words

There are some words that have been rejected nearly universally:

Retard is not used by anyone to describe themselves.

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Cite This Page (APA): Langtree, I. C. (2011, September 1 - Last revised: 2024, March 30). Disability or Disabled? Which Term is Right?. Disabled World. Retrieved July 24, 2024 from www.disabled-world.com/definitions/disability-disabled.php

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