Published: 29 May 2023

Does language matter?

The use of language is something I've been thinking a lot about recently. Sometimes those thoughts have been triggered by a brash encounter with clumsy language. Other times, it's been a thread on Twitter. Often, news articles trigger discussion around the use of language.

Language is emotive. It is constantly evolving. It is cultural. There are so many variants of English, and then all the dialects. Is it even possible to use language without saying the wrong thing and offending someone? Maybe not.

Language reflects your view

The language we use to talk about something nearly always reflects the way we feel about that thing or the way we perceive it. When I was a teacher, I could tell a lot about a child by the way their parent talked about school and different subjects. Maths is an interesting subject. It has different levels of importance in different cultures. I've heard a white, British parent tell their child, Don't worry lad/lass, I was never any good at maths and I've done okay. Mostly, the kids picked up on this and didn't value maths either. The cycle of innumeracy continued.

Going back to my days of private tuition, I taught many Pakistani and Indian teenagers, whose parents paid for a private tutor, not to help them pass, but to get them from B to A*. They would tell me, I want him/her to have deep understanding of it. Whatever study or career, he/she needs to be very good at maths, right? And for the most part, they studied hard and became pretty good at maths.

The way we talk about disability can tell us a lot about how we perceive it and how we feel about disabled people. We can use negative language:

These all paint the picture of tragedy. It must be terrible to be this person! I'm so glad that I'm not in their situation! Don't get me wrong, they may be suffering. They may not be happy. They may not be able to do anything without someone's help. But... they may be quite happy with their life. They may be able to do most things without help.

The problem is, that because society uses these negative phrases to talk about disabled people, society has a negative view of disability. And because people have a negative view of it, they say even more negative things. I've heard people say that they would kill themselves if they had an accident that left them in a wheelchair. It would be better to die than go blind. Life wouldn't be worth living if...

What a load of tosh! Life throws some tough stuff at us from time to time. Illness and injuries are just one of many challenges that we encounter as humans, but they are no different from other challenges: finances, relationships, failure, work, bereavement.

I could go on forever... Let's move on...


I make no apology for being a little obsessed with grammar. The way we construct sentences has meaning. Small changes in word order or use of things like adjectives and adverbs, can fundamentally change the meaning of what we say.

In an attempt to be politically correct and avoid offending people, I see all kinds of poor grammar use. Just this week, I have seen:

Of course, I know what they mean, but if you really think about them, they make no sense. All people have accessibility needs. Accessibility isn't a concrete thing that can be used. It would be more accurate to talk about a disabled person or an accessible product or place. And I actually have no words to discuss the Boots sign!

The more I encounter poor grammar in order to avoid saying what we mean, the more irritated I become by it. I used to just ignore it, and tell myself that it's just people trying to sound kind, or a lack of knowledge... but there are situations where I want to call it out. It's hard though. I don't want to call it out to criticise or offend. I just want people to stop beating around the bush to avoid using the D word. Disabled is not a dirty word.

Also, according to the social model of disability (which I strongly subscribe to), a person doesn't have a disability. A person has an impairment. Some part of their body doesn't work the way it should/used to. My legs don't work well. My lower back causes me pain. The cauda equina nerves are damaged. That is an impairment, not a disability.

When I am at home, which is a wheelchair-friendly, adapted environment, I am not disabled. I can do most things. I can cook. I can work. I can move around. I can grow fruit and veggies in the garden. I can shower and get dressed. I don't do these things the way you might do them. My Canine Partner, Liggy, helps me with some of the things. But I am not disabled. I am quite able to get on with life.

If I try to do all those things in a different environment, that's when it gets tricky! We had a holiday in Wales. We booked a holiday cottage that was supposed to be accessible. It wasn't. I couldn't do many things without a lot of help. I was disabled. It wasn't my legs and back that disabled me. My condition hadn't suddenly got worse as we crossed the Welsh border. It was the inaccessible environment that disabled me.

Again, I could go on forever...


When we lived in Finland, I became much more aware of the subtle differences in meaning between different English words. For example, in Finnish, the word 'mahdollisuus' basically translates as 'possibility'. However it is used in situations where English has more specific words. The word 'possibility' has no positive or negative connotation. It is quite a neutral word. However there are other words with the same basic meaning but which do have positive or negative implications. Opportunity is the same as possibility but with a positive slant on it. Risk, on the other hand is also the same as possibility, but risk implies something negative.

So the English language has subtle differences in meaning, that we recognise as being positive or negative. The same is absolutely true of language around disability.

The phrase that has crossed my desk this week is additional needs. Okay, I guess it is marginally better than special needs but I really don't like either phrase. There are two reasons:

  1. A disabled person's needs are pretty much the same as a non-disabled person's needs. We all need food, water, shelter, love, friendship, to be able to get into a building, etc. It's how those needs are met that might be different. What might be needed are adjustments... reasonable adjustments.
  2. Using the words special or additional implies that meeting that person's needs is extra or a burden or an inconvenience or at a cost. Of course, if the environment was designed to be inaccessible, then this might be true, but the needs are not special or additional. The issue is with the design.

When we talk about special or additional needs, the fault is placed on the person. Their impairment is seen as the root cause of the problem. If we talk about accessibility and reasonable adjustments, then the cause of the problem is the environment, which was badly designed in the first place.


One final word... I began by saying that language is cultural. It is evolving. It is emotive. What one person finds offensive, another might use as their vocabulary of choice. On social media, I see people referring to themselves as handicapped. If someone used that word to describe me, they'd better hope they can run faster than I can chase them in my chair!

When talking to a disabled person, find out what language they prefer to use and then use that same language. If they use the phrase 'persons with disabilities' then you use it when talking to them. It's just basic kindness and good manners.