This is designed to very briefly explain some of the words used to describe people who experience disability.
In the UK, we are usually referred to as disabled people. Many people feel this makes most sense within the context of The Social Model of Disability, which differentiates between impairment (our physical, intellectual, cognitive or psychological limitations) and disability, which we understand to be the practical, political and social barriers which stop us doing what we would otherwise be able to do.
We believe that disability is a societal experience that we are subject to, therefore we are disabled people.
People with Disabilities
In the US and Canada, it seems we are usually referred to as people with disabilities. The idea behind this is to put the people first and the disability second. In this context, disability and impairment are essentially synonymous; disability is understood as a fundamentally medical or physical phenomenon.
So it makes sense to described say people with disabilities as opposed to disabled people in the same way a person with depression is far more dignifying than a depressive person. A medical condition ought not to define a person.
Handicapped People/ People with Handicaps
This word has been demonised among the disabled community in the UK, but some individuals prefer it because of its etymology; the idea that their limitations are necessary in order to make it fair for everybody else. People may also prefer it to disabled because of the way that disabled is used in other contexts. For example, in computer programming disabled means “off”, not currently functioning. Others prefer it because they wish to defy what they perceive as over-sensitivity on the part of some disabled activists.
I struggle to argue for this. I guess it is an attempt to neutralise difference or disadvantage; we are after all, all differently-abled in some way. Which poses the question, what is normally-abled? as it were.
However, I can’t help thinking of The Gospel of Disability Language According to Turtle that defines Differently-Abled as
“You can shoot milk through your nose, or lift weights with your todger. Or something. All those of you who walk a bit weird, like, aren't differently abled, you're crappily abled until someone SORTS THE BLOODY PAVEMENTS.”
Anything with the word “Challenged” or “Special” in it
I have never heard any disabled people refer to themselves as Challenged or Special. Fully prepared to be corrected, I would think that most disabled people find this sort of language patronising. Special, for example, was voted the 5th worst word in Ouch’s Worst Words survey.