Disabled versus Differently-Abled

In recent days, I’ve seen this debate come up about why we still use the term “disabled” and that it should be “differently-abled” to be more inclusive of everyone who has different levels of ability. This has shown up not just online but also at work and with friends, and quite frankly, I’ve had just about enough of it.

Some people believe that saying that someone is differently-abled is being kind to people with disabilities; that it’s politically correct and polite. I’m not willing to get into a whole debate on political correctness at this time, but saying that someone is differently-abled is not polite under any circumstance when referring to someone who is disabled.

In fact, I find it highly offensive.

When I hear the term “differently-abled,” I think of everyone on the planet–both those of us who are able-bodied as well as those who are disabled, because we all have different abilities, strengths and weaknesses. These are things that distinguish us amongst each other, making is different from one another, and thus differently-abled.

The problem is that people use this term as synonymous to disabled, because they think that it refers to having different abilities in the physical and mental sense. It is assumed that differently-abled is all-encompassing of everyone who is disabled, who may or may not have different levels of disability, when it’s really not the case, because if we use it to describe only those who are disabled then how are we supposed explain that others have other abilities that are different amongst the population?

The National Center on Disability and Journalism notes that the term “differently-abled” came to use in the 1990s as an alternative to “disabled,” “handicapped,” or “mentally retarded,” but is not considered appropriate because some find it condescending, while others prefer it. The center goes on to note that the usage of the term becomes particularly problematic when it comes to referring to individuals because many advocates observe that we are all differently abled. In fact, their recommendation is to use “person with a disability” at all times, when relevant to the story.

Part of the problem with this confusion surrounding “differently-abled” is English syntax. The way that we use language, and the way we form sentences can result in things being understood in a myriad of ways. So without context, the word seems almost innocent, but when you stop and consider it in the context of a sentence, you’ll see that there is a subtle difference:

Marley is differently-abled than the rest of her team.
At any point if you want to use “differently-abled” you have to make a comparison, and in this case, it has a negative connotation–who is Marley differently-abled from? She is differently-abled from the rest of her team. Right then and there you are making the distinction that she is different (and thus maybe a little strange) than the rest of her team. This may lead to more questions from the listener–but how is Marley differently-abled than everyone else? What’s so strange about her? Marley in this instance is placed in an uneven power position–like she is less than her coworkers–and therefore she is “excluded.”

Now if the person simply said “Marley is disabled,” what impression do you get? In three words you learn more about Marley than you learn in the sentence above. It’s more concise, to the point, and makes you prepared to some extent about what you may encounter when working with Marley. They do not have to go into further details, and you don’t have to ask the speaker per se about the disability, but it gives you an opportunity to realize that when you work with Marley, it will be different than what you’re accustomed to. There is nothing there about Marley being excluded from the group of people she works with–you’re simply stating a fact, not comparing her with someone else.

John and Anna are differently-abled artists–John’s a great drone photographer, while Anna is an outstanding painter–but they complement each other with their work.
In this sentence, differently-abled again to make a comparison against each other, but in a way that is positive. They’re comparing John and Anna both as artists, which is who they are because of the skills and knowledge of their craft. They’re comparing two people of on the same footing, who have the same capability, but they have different abilities within that capability.

Fernando and Guiseppe are phenomenal differently-abled musicians and best friends who play for the national orchestra. Fernando plays the piano and communicates with Guiseppe, who plays the drums, via sign language when it’s time to change the music sheet because Guiseppe is disabled.
Again, you’re putting Fernando and Guiseppe on the same footing by saying that they’re both differently-abled musicians, because Fernando plays the piano, and Guiseppe plays the drums. All of this is positive, and gives them the same balance of power, same worth. Then the speaker explains that they communicate in a different way because Guiseppe a disability. Nowhere in those sentences is there anything exclusive, or gives any reason that Guiseppe shouldn’t be playing the drums for the national orchestra. Rather, it’s inclusive, because you’re making that comparison that both guys are top-notch in their respective instruments in order for them to both be in the national orchestra. What’s more, you’re pointing out something unique about their relationship and about Guiseppe, which may clarify why you may see Fernando signing to Guiseppe during the shows.

Hopefully that clarifies some things about the differences between disability and differently-abled, and why you should almost always use disabled in all contexts when referring to someone who has an actual disability, physical or mental. That said, if you are talking to a person who says they prefer the term “differently-abled,” then by all means use it, but don’t take that specific situation and make it general to everyone else.

But ultimately, why does it matter if someone is disabled? At the end of the day, they’re still a person with feelings, hopes, fears, and dreams, and should be treated as such.