Karen Foster: Executive director: Be mindful of language when talking about disability

  • Ginny Graves, 72, of Pelham, skis down a trail in the Wendell State Forest using a Scandinavian kick sled with the assistance of All Out Adventures program leader Patti Dougherty in Wendell. Staff Photo/Dan Little

Published: 3/18/2019 9:48:35 AM

As the executive director of All Out Adventures, a Northampton-based nonprofit organization that provides outdoor recreation programming to people with disabilities, veterans, and seniors, I spend a lot of time interacting with people who want to learn more about our programs and the people we serve.

With those conversations often come questions about what exactly to say when talking about disability. A recent article about our programs published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette and The Greenfield Recorder reminded us of the need to work to educate people about the power of language when describing disability.

There are of course always exceptions but keeping these general points in mind will reduce missteps: People are people first. Say “the person with a disability” and not “the disabled person.” Use neutral language whenever possible. Say “person with a brain injury” and not “brain damaged.”

Recognize that wheelchairs provide freedom and mobility to people who need them. Say “the person who uses a wheelchair,” not “confined to a wheelchair.”

“Handicapped” should not be used to refer to a person or people, but may still be used to describe laws or places. “Handicapped parking” is still acceptable, though the term “accessible parking” is preferred.

Being mindful of the language we use is an important way to avoid perpetuating stereotypes or negative associations. For example, our program director has red hair. In describing her, if I say, “Sue has red hair,” I leave a very different impression of her than if I say “Sue is a redhead,” which brings to the surface all of the associations and stereotypes we have about redheads.

Language is a powerful tool, and we can harness language’s power to avoid perpetuating stereotypes and to work toward a more inclusive society.

Karen Foster


Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061


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