#TIL: It’s the Avengers that are “specially-abled”

by Apoorv Kulkarni

Have you ever been in a situation when you were talking about, say someone in a wheelchair, and you struggled to find the “right” word? Perhaps you referred to them as “handicap”, or “differently-abled”, or “specially-abled”. And probably, irrespective of which words you used, you were wondering, “what is the appropriate term?”

Let’s take a look at some of the commonly used terms:

Handicap | In 1915, the term “handicap” was first used in connection with disability. The term originally dates back to 1600s when a lottery game called hand-in-cap was popular. Later, it got linked with the idea of “equalizing the odds”, especially when used in the context of sports. For instance, in horse racing, a faster horse is made to carry additional weight so that the slower horse has an equal opportunity to compete.

Despite its association with “equity”, the term got stigmatised. One reason for this could have been the prevailing belief of that time — disability is a defect and so it must be cured. Today, the word handicap is considered to be in bad taste and its usage is frowned upon.

Disabled | In the 1970s, the disability rights activists disowned the term handicap and adopted “disabled” as the preferred term. This could have been a result of the stigma associated with the former. Further, the term “handicap” was chosen by non-disabled people. The desire to take back the control on one’s own identity could also have contributed to the shift.

“Disabled person” is an example of the identity-first language (IFL) and is commonly associated with “Disability Pride”. IFL is preferred by many disability groups. As an example, Persons living with hearing or speech disability prefer being called “Deaf”.

Differently-Abled | The term “Differently-abled” was coined by the US Democratic National Committee around the 1980s. While some prefer this term, many others resist it. Perhaps the resistance stems from a belief that the term starts with an unspoken understanding that there is a “normal” way of performing an activity. Further, the term is often used by non-disabled people to emphasize that everybody has some disability or an area of weakness. Perhaps unknowingly, but the term confuses a disability with the lack of a skill or a talent.

Specially-Abled and other euphemisms | Different terms such as “Specially-abled”, “Special-needs”, “Divyang”, etc. are used when talking about people living with a disability. However, many people from the community strongly disapprove of these terms. For one, disability does not give one any special abilities — that’s reserved for the Avengers. Neither does it manifest any special needs. At the core, we all want the same — good food, a safe place to live, access to quality education, the freedom to work and travel, the privilege of having family and friends, in short, a happy life. In fact, euphemisms end up further stigmatizing disability. They are the equivalent of the convenient “you know who” to the terrifying “Voldemort”.

Persons with Disability (PwD) | The term, “Person with Disability” is used throughout the Rights of Persons With Disabilities Act, 2016 . This expression represents a person-first language (PFL). The United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) (which India has ratified)also endorses the person-first language. The PFL originated from a philosophy that disability is only one of the many attributes of an individual’s personality. Therefore, the disability, say the blind, the cripple, etc. should not be used as the primary identifier for a person.

Although the person-first language is the preferred choice for many in the community, it is not without its share of critics. People who disapprove of the PFL believe that it separates the person from the disability. Thus, it ends up stigmatizing disability further and defeating the basic purpose of the PFL. These critics usually prefer the identity-first language as a mark of Disability Pride.

The table below gives a quick summary of outdated language and their respectful counterparts. While these terms are generally preferred, it is obviously best to check individual preference of the person with whom you are interacting.

Image Description:

  • Instead of “Handicap” or “Invalid”, use “Person with Disability” (person-first language) or “Disabled person” (identity-first language)
  • Instead of “Able-bodied” or “Normal”, use “Non-disabled”
  • Instead of “Blind”, use “Person living with blindness”
  • Instead of “Half-blind” or “Partially blind”, use “Person living with low vision”
  • Instead of “Deaf & dumb”, “Deaf & mute”, “Hearing impaired” or “Language disabled”, use “Deaf” (with a capital D)or “Hard of hearing”
  • Instead of “Cripple” or “Wheelchair bound/confined”, use “Person with physical disability”, “Person with locomotor disability” or “Wheelchair user”
  • Instead of “Dwarf” or “Midget”, use “People of short stature”
  • Instead of “Leper”, “Leprosy victim” or “ Leprosy patient”, use “Leprosy survivor”
  • Instead of “Acid attack victim”, use “Acid attack Survivor”
  • Instead of “Autism patient”, use “Autistic”

Today I learnt (TIL) is a weekly series by OMI that brings you interesting nuggets of information that you didn’t know you needed.



OMI is a new-age policy research and social innovation think tank! For website, visit https://ola.institute

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OMI is a new-age policy research and social innovation think tank! For website, visit https://ola.institute