Marietta Mehanni

Language of Disability

Language of disability blog, Carol Syer, Inclusive fitness for all abilities, words have power, intellectual disability

Written by admin

October 14, 2021

Carol Syer wrote this blog.

Learning the language of disability

In my 30+ years in the fitness Industry, I have seen it grow and mature. We have become more aware and more inclusive. We have become more educated, and with that knowledge, we are becoming more welcoming of people with disabilities.

Having spent my life living with someone with a disability, I have never really stumbled over correct language or worried about what to say or do around a person with a disability, as I often see with others. We don’t know what we don’t know. I hope to help explore language and provide some easy-to-understand dos and don’ts regarding Language of Disability.

Respect each individual

First, I want to clarify that I do not speak for anyone with a disability. No one can. Every person with a disability is an individual, and there is no checklist of ‘say this but don’t say that’ that will cover every person and every situation. It simply doesn’t work like that.

The most important thing to take away is Individuality. People with disability are professors, teachers, doctors, cleaners, factory workers, unemployed, advocates, mothers, and uncles. They are unique and individual, and no two people are the same.

To be told I was skinny was not a compliment

Words have power: can you think of a word used to describe you at some stage in your life that you hated or offended you? I can, I was a small built child, and my older brother called me “Skinny Ribs”, not in a fun big brother way but in an “I’m teasing you mercilessly way and said with offence”. 

Working in the fitness industry, I have heard the word skinny used in many ways, for example, “You’re so lucky you’re so skinny” or “You can eat that as you’re so skinny” People think they are giving a compliment, but I find that word offensive. I always wanted to be more muscly, and to be told I was skinny was not a compliment. Skinny means different things to different people. I know, first-world problems, but can you imagine a word used to describe you every day, several times a day, a comment you don’t want to be associated with constantly? You want to be seen for you. That’s how my daughter Caitlin feels; she has an intellectual disability, but it doesn’t define her. She is a young adult going about her life like everyone else. She gets sick of the word “disability” defining her.


Ableism is favouring neuro-typical people and the exclusion and devaluation of people living with a disability. Ableist language is a language that is offensive to people with disability. Negative, abusive, derogatory language about disability is ableist. Some words can be cruel in one context but inoffensive in another. For example, if I use the word normal, e.g. my normal routine in the morning is… that is fine. Still, if I’m referring to a person with a disability and I compare them or the program, school etc., to the normal person, program etc., that is offensive. For example, we have an all-abilities children’s class in our centre, if you don’t want to attend that, we also have the normal kids’ class, that is offensive!

Understand what’s acceptable in today’s society

Many words have their roots in the medical past, for example, retard, moron, spastic, insane, lunatic, crazy, mental, and handicapped. These were words that once were used to describe patients in hospitals. Language changes over time. Society adopts and changes words. Once acceptable terms can become offensive.

A word’s origin doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to use it. These words are very offensive and should not get used. The way society has used terms such as retard and spastic have often been in situations to have a “laugh” or “a go” at a mate or someone if they are, perhaps, uncoordinated or trip or fall, for example. This puts a person with an intellectual disability or someone with Cerebral Palsy down. Not only should you not use these words, but you also need to call them out if you hear them and explain it’s offensive. Just because no one with a disability may be around you when the word is said doesn’t mean it’s not awful. People with disability also have mums, dads, brothers and sisters and family who constantly watch their loved ones put up with this ableist language. The meanings of a word cannot be erased with good intentions. Ableist language shows people with disability that they aren’t valued.

Language around disability is evolving

Language around disability is evolving and changing and is constantly challenged and contested. Caitlin and I prefer to use the person first language, i.e. the person with a disability. As mentioned, Caitlin gets sick of her disability defining her and wants to be seen as a person first. Her disability comes last and doesn’t define her.

Other people prefer identity-first language, i.e., “Disabled person”. Many people are proud of their disability and want to be known as disabled. Everyone’s story is different. Some people may like to name medical conditions and impairments, and others may be very uncomfortable. The language a person with a disability chooses is their choice, and we should respect that. It is always best to avoid making assumptions and asking or waiting to be told what language they prefer.

Also, remember language is used differently worldwide; the same word has different meanings. For example, we all remember the word “fanny pack” having a completely different meaning here in Australia compared to overseas!!

So, most importantly, avoid derogatory words or paint people with disability in a bad light. Phrases like a victim of, suffering from, bound to a wheelchair, physically challenged, handicapped, slow learner, midget, dwarf, special needs, able-bodied, deaf and dumb.

Words we recommend, Wheelchair user, the person has…., with lived experience of…., person of short stature, intellectual disability, learning disability, deaf person, Aslan user.

I’m a mum and sister of a person with a disability

I’m a mum and sister of a person with a disability, and my role becomes known as a Carer in my dealing with NDIS and Centrelink. This is different to a paid worker that assists a person with a disability who is referred to as a Support worker or Personal Assistant. It is essential to understand the difference. You will undoubtedly come across both carers and support workers in your workplaces.

Some people may use an accessible toilet or accessible parking instead of a disabled bathroom or disabled parking. The ample space around the car park and the more comprehensive access and fit out of changerooms/toilets make them more accessible. Once again, there is a difference. It does take effort and practice to make these changes to our language if we have always referred to something one way in the past, but it’s worth making an effort.

Connect, respect, and include all abilities

One important takeaway is to make sure you keep conversations going. The worst thing that can happen is to be worried about offending someone or worried saying the wrong thing and therefore avoid talking to a person with a disability and say nothing. As a result, people with disability are more often ignored and socially isolated. We all need to change this. If you approach the situation positively and with the right intent, most people will not be offended if you make a mistake. If you cannot understand someone, ask them to repeat or ask them if there is another way you can communicate. Be ready to learn; if someone corrects you, acknowledge and respect. Remember, no one method works for everyone. The best people to learn more from are our people with disabilities.

Ableism and ableism language are everywhere; we can start to change by being aware.

At the end of the day, we are all just people wanting to be connected, respected and included. Including and making welcome people with disability into our fitness facilities will only improve their lives. When you increase the diversity in your life and reach out and make friends, work colleagues and professional relationships with those different from your usual social network, your life will become more interesting and enriched.

Join me at 10 am on the 16th of April for the FREE Breaking Barriers: Inclusive Fitness for all Abilities ENABLE Seminar, where you will learn effective communication and interaction strategies to apply in your group fitness classes.

Learn more and register here for the FREE Seminar

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1 Comment

  1. I hope that that everybody will not only read, but also retain this very important article for future reference. Thank you Carol for your words and thank you Marietta for bringing the subject to our attention.


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