What is Negative Language?

Published January 27, 2022

Most people mean well when talking about disability, but that doesn’t mean inappropriate words or poor language choices aren’t hurtful. For centuries, people with disabilities have fought to be accepted by society and seen as equals. Even today, the language choices of coworkers and peers continue to isolate people with disabilities and treat them differently.

Fortunately, all it takes is a few small changes to embrace language that is more inclusive. Once you understand why certain terms are offensive, you can make adjustments to support your friends, family, and coworkers with disabilities.

First, evaluate your use of negative language. Consider how you approach various disabilities and the people who have them. Learn more about what this means and why these negative phrases are still commonly used today.

What is negative language?

Negative language refers to words or phrases that present people with disabilities in an incapable light. Negative language also impacts how people talk about accessibility resources like wheelchairs, screen readers, and canes.

One of the best ways to understand negative language and accessibility is to see examples of it. The word "suffering" is one of the most common terms used to describe people with disabilities. For example, he suffers from blindness. She suffers from Down syndrome. This phrasing implies that people with disabilities are either unhappy with their condition or should feel sorry for themselves. However, this is simply untrue.

“I like being deaf,” writes Sara Nović for the BBC. “I like the silence as well as the rich culture and language deafness affords me. When I see the word ‘deaf’ on the page, it evokes a feeling of pride for my community, and calls to me as if I’m being addressed directly, as if it were my name.”

Negative language makes you pity people with disabilities

Negative language implies that people with disabilities have a poor quality of life. Someone who is described as being a stroke victim, rather than a person who experienced a stroke, is being defined through negative language. This evokes a sense of pity for people with disabilities.

“We’re not suffering,” Kathryn Poe says. “We’re just living our lives in a different way.”

For another example of negative language, Poe brings up the use of the word handicap. She challenges people to describe what they think when they hear the word handicap:

  • Who do they picture?
  • Is that person successful or capable?
  • Do you see them as a human?

Exploring these questions helps better understand the connotation of the word for people who use it, along with other negative language. The word handicapped, according to Poe, implies an inability. It suggests that people cannot function in society.

Negative language lessens the value of assistive technology

Negative language is also frequently used in relation to the resources that people with disabilities use. The phrase “confined to a wheelchair” is a good example. It makes it seem like the person is unable to engage with modern society because of their wheelchair use – as if the wheelchair itself is holding them back.

Consider the assistive tools that you use throughout the day and imagine how it would sound through the use of negative language. You wouldn’t say that someone suffers from near-sightedness and is confined to wearing contact lenses.

Assistive technology helps people with disabilities function independently and participate in society. They are able to do more through them and aren’t confined or limited because of them. Negative language, however, vilifies the use of this technology. It makes it seem like the assistive tools are the problem and ensures that people with disabilities will continue to be treated differently.

Overly soft language can also have negative connotations

When public awareness about derogatory language first started to grow, people started to change how they referred to people with disabilities. However, they went too far in the other direction.

In some cases, the word disability itself became a dirty word. The phrase “differently-abled” started popping up in HR training materials and in news reports. This has lead to the use of overly soft language, which means well but continues to isolate people with disabilities. Soft language refers to terms like differently-abled, special, challenged, and handicapable.

“They are so obviously an effort to be kind, or nice, or positive and cheerleading that the effect on actual disabled people can be sentimental and condescending,” says Andrew Pulrang at Forbes. “It’s also an understandable but ultimately wrongheaded effort to promote equality not by elevating disabled people, but in a sense trying to deny the reality of disability as a meaningful concept or experience.”

Pulrang runs the blog Disability Thinking and coordinates the Twitter hashtag, #CripTheVote to discuss disability issues and electoral politics.

These phrases either look to erase the disability or elevate it – keeping people with disabilities separate from society. The same problem occurs with overly heroic language that places people with disabilities on a pedestal. People with disabilities don’t necessarily feel brave and don’t want to be championed just because they use assistive technology to navigate the world. At best, being called out as heroic is embarrassing. At worst, it’s condescending and offensive.

What language should you use instead?

The primary focus of this article is on identifying negative language because so many people don’t realize they are using it. However, the best way to reduce inappropriate word usage is to offer replacements.

Online resources, like the ADA National Network, have tools that you can use to write about and discuss disability. However, there are a few general rules you can follow to better approach disability honestly and positively.

  • Use people-first language (a person with a disability, not a disabled person).
  • Avoid negative terms like suffering and victim that imply pain or unhappiness.
  • Do not suggest that someone is abnormal, outside society, or has a reduced quality of life because of their disability.
  • Do not overly praise someone for their disability or use language that places them on a pedestal.
  • Use empowering terms with assistive technology (uses a wheelchair, not confined to a wheelchair).
  • Focus on abilities, not limitations.

Additionally, be specific when you can. It’s okay to ask if someone is willing to disclose their disability (and respect their wishes if they don’t want to). You can also ask about their language preferences and terms they want to use if you aren’t sure. People with disabilities are individuals. A phrase that one person likes might not be appreciated by someone else. By asking and listening, you can show your respect.

Learn more about language mindfulness

You don’t need to operate a large company or have a significant budget to be mindful of your language. Changing the words and phrases you use is free and can help promote inclusion in all environments. People do not want to be seen as heroes or victims, they are people first. They are simply your coworkers, peers, and friends.

We can help you improve your inclusion efforts. The employment section on our blog has several guides to help you create a more inviting organization, whether you want to improve your workplace or welcome people with disabilities into your community group. Our resources are here to help you.


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