inclusion, group in silhouette with blue background

While at the hospital earlier this week for an orthopedic appointment, I was struck by their outdated and poor use of language on a bathroom stall. The sign on the door to the accessible bathroom was a printed piece of paper that said, “Please give consideration to our handicapped patients.”  This sign made my skin crawl. Let me tell you why. 

First, using the term handicapped to describe a person with a disability is outdated and needs to be retired.  There are a few different possible sources for how this word originated. One is that it refers to people with a cap in their hand, in other words, people who are on the streets asking for money. When you call someone handicapped, it is telling them that you don’t think they can do any meaningful work, that they will need to depend on the charity of strangers. 

Second, the language of this sign splits humans into Us vs Them.  The sign asks the person reading it to check in and see if they are “handicapped” and if not, to leave the larger bathroom stall to “other” people.  Yes, this is reading a lot into the sign but we need to understand that this is the power of written words.  If you have ever been in a situation where you were discriminated against for any reason, you know how badly it feels to be labeled as the “other.”

So what should this sign have said?  “Please give consideration to individuals needing the accessible bathroom stall.”

The larger bathroom stall is an accessible stall not a handicapped stall. Similarly, they are accessible parking spots, accessible entrances, accessible motorized doors, and accessible buildings. 

This larger stall is for anyone who needs it.  A person with a disability might need an accessible stall. A person with a disability might also prefer to use a regular stall. A person on crutches might need an accessible stall.  An older adult with limited mobility might not see themselves as a person with a disability and they might need the accessible stall.  The sign doesn’t need to specify being only for people with disabilities. 

When referring to someone with a disability, use person-first language.  People are people first.  Person-first language is important in so many areas and reminds us all that we are connected. It labels a person as a person and not their condition, housing situation, or medical diagnosis. 

  • A person with a disability, not a disabled person.
  • A person experiencing homelessness, not a homeless person.
  • A person with autism, not an autistic person. 
  • A person experiencing depression, not a depressed person.

One of the amazing and powerful things about language is its ability to change and evolve over time and our opportunity to learn and change with it.  So now that you know more, look at your own language and let it evolve, it makes a difference.

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