Skip to content.

Disability: let’s say the word

“I mean, she called you deaf, you’re hearing impaired!

“Well, actually…”

The words of disability

Growing up, I did identify as ‘hearing impaired.’ My mom was hearing impaired, my brother was hearing impaired, and I was hearing impaired. I never thought much about the word ‘impaired.’ It didn’t bother me or offend me.

Even though I grew up with severe-to-profound bilateral sensorineural hearing loss (try saying that five times fast!), I was not often around other deaf or hard-of-hearing (HOH) people. I had little to no exposure to others’ shared experiences. As such, I did not interact much with members of the Deaf (capital ‘D’) community and had no idea of the preferred terminology.


That all changed when Facebook came around and provided us access to many other viewpoints.

The group feature on Facebook was quite popular in the beginning years, and I was eager to talk to people around the world (omg, British people are real!) so I signed up for quite a few groups, one of which was Deaf/HOH. I gave this a cursory glance and moved on to my then favorite “I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar.” (I was an English major. Cut me some slack, yeah?)

I eventually circled back around to all these groups I had joined, and in the Deaf/HOH group, a topic caught my eye: “Why is it HARD? Why HARD-of-hearing?” In reading through the thread, I saw people discussing the negative connotations of the word ‘hard’ and objecting that something negative was being applied to those with partial hearing loss. (‘Loss’ is another word that is often up for debate in this group.)

Research and themes

I went down a rabbit hole. I came across several threads reinforcing that ‘impaired’ should not be used to describe hard-of-hearing people. I came across the word ‘audism,’ which is the tendency to push non-hearing people into a hearing world. People were “hearies” and “deafies.” People asked for tips on becoming employed and whether they should disclose their deafness.

A predominant theme throughout the group was “Stop trying to fix us! We’re not broken!” Many within the Deaf community viewed cochlear implants as erasing their culture. They would try to convince worried parents not to get them for their young children. In lieu of that, at least ensure their children would learn sign language. In the same vein as “don’t fix us” was “We’re not disabled! We’re DEAF!” Posters would write about not wanting to identify as disabled while also being discriminated against for being deaf.

History and identity

So about that word, ‘disabled.’

Hesitance to use the word ‘disabled’ within the Deaf community stems from a variety of reasons. For this group, they were first Deaf, disabled a reluctant second. That was part of their identity. The neurodiverse community also generally prefers identity first. People in this group might not consider themselves disabled, actually calling their neurodivergence a superpower.

What’s important to note here is that the communities themselves are driving how they are identified, as opposed to someone from the outside looking in trying to define the labels.

Another group of people who hesitate to use the word ‘disabled’ are those who worry it’s a pejorative or insulting. These are usually non-disabled people who, in trying not to accidentally offend, use other potentially offending terms: “differently abled” (immediately “others” us), “range of abilities” or “people of all abilities” (okay, but we’re discriminated against for our disability, are you going to ignore that?), “specially challenged” (again, “others” us), and so on. Note here that the push for labels other than ‘disabled’ is coming from people without a disability.

The #SayTheWord disability hashtag

The #SayTheWord hashtag was created by Lawrence Carter-Long to bring awareness to the actual word ‘disabled’ and to encourage everyone to use it. There are several reasons why non-disabled people may hesitate to #SayTheWord ‘disability.’ Their impression of what entails disability is mostly negative; they think disabled people are sad, lonely, dependent, unhappy. So calling someone ‘disabled’ would imply you think they’re unhappy or incapable.

People also may not realize that disability can be invisible, so they think only people in wheelchairs are disabled, but not the coworker in the cube next to them who needs a lot of time off (due to a hidden disability). Hidden disabilities in particular pose a host of barriers for people. People who have invisible disabilities may find themselves facing skepticism that their disability is ‘real,’ exasperation about the time it may take them to do a task, anger about all the ‘free time’ they get off work. Given stigmas around mental illness such as depression or anxiety, people may hesitate to disclose, for fear that their experience will be minimized or dismissed and their needs ignored.

Breaking down stigmas

In hesitating to use the word ‘disability,’ people are unwittingly reinforcing the stigma that having a disability is a bad thing. It also erases our experiences because of our disabilities. In ensuring we use the word ‘disability,’ we can bring visibility to what all it entails and start breaking down the myriad stigmas associated with it. We can start humanizing the people behind them instead of caricaturizing them as wheelchair or cane users only.

Disability isn’t an inherently bad experience. Disability as a minority group is the only one that everyone can enter in and exit out of during their lifetime. When people break their arm, they’re experiencing a disabling event. However, they may just feel inconvenienced at having to type one-handed or use dictation software. But they’re disabled, even if just for a short while.

Making sure we #SayTheWord can help people relate to the various scenarios that life throws at us that disable us, whether temporarily or permanently. After all, we all age into disability. Disability is something we all will experience, even if we don’t realize it, and there is no shame in that.

#SayTheWord ‘disability’ and when in doubt, ask.