The Words We Choose

At the moment, I’m doing a series of creative workshops with a group of people. We’re working on a writing project which will lead to the publication of a small book of poems. It’s an enjoyable experience, and the people are enthusiastic and attentive. Many words are used to describe the people I’m working with, and these words have evolved over time. The choice of words used to describe them is the cause of much debate. The organisation they attend for services is referred to as an intellectual disability association.

Disability Pic
What words should be used to describe people with disabilities?

When it comes to defining things that are delicate or that are hard to define, there are three approaches that people take.

Minimising the Impact

Some people like to name things in a way that reduces the emotional impact this may cause. These people would refer to my budding writers as having special needs. Their intention is to spare people’s feelings, but there is a danger that you could be seen to fudge the issue. What is so wrong with naming a thing for what it is? Also, some terms that seem kind are actually quite vague. What special needs do these people have? And doesn’t everyone have special needs?

No Names Needed

Other people go a step further and prefer to use no terminology at all. A well-known journalist was recently interviewed about his daughter, who has Down Syndrome. He was asked what words the family used to describe her condition. He said, ‘We just call her by her name.’

As a parent, he has more than earned the right to use whatever words he wants, or no words at all. But the reality is that his daughter has a condition and at some point, words need to be used to describe it. Besides, having Down Syndrome isn’t something that needs to be hidden. It’s just another aspect of a person, like their allegiance to a football team or their love of cheesy pop music.

Finding Comfort in Names

And then there are people who like things to be named, to be defined. They find comfort in having things named in a way that accurately describes them. They feel that words give shape to complex feelings, thoughts and concepts. But there is a danger that in seeking this comfort, they can define a person too rigidly by their condition.

For example, these are the people who are inclined to use a phrase like mentally retarded. It’s true that in its original sense, this phrase conveys the concept of a brain that is delayed in its function, so that it takes longer for the affected person to reach life’s milestones. But the connotations of this phrase now, of inferiority, of damage, means that its use is frowned upon.

Intellectual disability is the term that has come to replace it. The organisation I’m working for clearly deems it suitable as a way to describe people whose brains work differently. But ultimately, if we want to know which words are the right ones to describe the people I’m working with, we must let ourselves be guided by them, and by their loved ones.

As I said, this is a subject that attracts lively debate. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you approach the naming of delicate things, whether it relates to disability or to other sensitive situations.