Speaking and Writing About People with Disabilities

Disability, Handicap, or Challenge? What to Call It and How to Say It


Though I use the following activities and worksheet to teach students in my college-level education classes about appropriate language for referring to people with disabilities, I believe they could easily be adapted for use with other grade levels. If you would like to use any of these ideas or the worksheet, please feel free to do so.

Objectives: Students will
1) define and differentiate between the words disability and handicap;
2) know that disability is currently the preferred term to use when referring to students who receive special education;
3) understand that many people with disabilities find use of the word challenge to refer to a disability inappropriate and even offensive;
4) appropriately use people-first language and understand the reasons for its use.

Part I
Introduction:  Write the words disability, handicap, and challenge on the board. Ask students which of these terms they believe is preferable for referring to students who receive special education (tell them not to respond aloud with their choice). After a minute or two, ask for a show of hands regarding which term students prefer. Write the number of "votes" each term receives on the board. Now ask at least one student who chose each term to explain the reasons for his/her choice. (It has been my experience that the majority of students will choose "challenge" because they think it is the most "positive.")

Teacher Presentation: Explain to the students that disability has become the generally accepted term, having replaced the word handicap in federal laws (e.g. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act instead of the Education of all Handicapped Children's Act). Ask if anyone knows why. Some students may have heard that the origin of the word handicap has something to do with being a beggar (i.e., having cap in hand, ready for donations). However, the word actually is derived from an English game in which money was held in one's cap (Miriam Webster Online Dictionary, 1999). The actual reason for the change is more difficult to ascertain, but is probably related to the definitions of the two words (see definitions below the next paragraph).

Before proceeding to the definitions, I explain to the students that the use of challenge or challenged to refer to a disability is one of my pet peeves, and I am not alone. Though I have not taken a survey regarding the use of challenged, I have never spoken to a person with a disability who likes to be referred to as "challenged." Yet, the word has certainly caught on. (I did a search on Google for "physically challenged" and got nearly 706,000 matches!). Why has it caught on? I suppose the reason is that it sounds kinder and gentler, and those without disabilities are more comfortable using words they feel are more "positive." However, according to the Harvard University Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation's online," use of challenged and other "euphemisms avoid reality and rob people of dignity." I couldn't agree more. I do not have difficulty walking across campus because I am unwilling or unable to accept a challenge. Rather, I have difficulty because I have post-polio syndrome which has resulted in a loss of strength and stamina.

Definitions: I then present the definitions on overhead transparencies, read them aloud, and clarify any aspects of the definitions the students find confusing.

A disability is a measurable impairment or limitation that "interferes with a person's ability, for example, to walk, lift, hear, or learn. It may refer to a physical, sensory, or mental condition" (Schiefelbusch Institute, 1996).

The word handicap is not a synonym for disability. Rather, a handicap is a disadvantage that occurs as a result of a disability or impairment. The degree of disadvantage (or the extent of the handicap) is often dependent on the adaptations made by both the individual and society (Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 2000). Therefore, the extent to which a disability handicaps an individual can vary greatly. For instance, a person who uses a wheelchair would be much less "handicapped" in a building that is wheelchair accessible than one that is not.

In comparing the two definitions, disability seems the better choice for describing a person's condition, particularly in a usage such as "a child with a disability," which would conform to the current trend of using people-first language.

Part II
With the above sentence as a bit of a transition, ask students if they know what you meant by "people-first language." If any are familiar with the term, ask them to describe its meaning. If no one is familiar with it, ask students what they think it implies based on the phrase "a child with a disability." After whatever discussion is generated by these questions, present the information about people-first language below (I use an overhead transparency as I talk about each of the guidelines).

What is People-First Language? Just as the term would imply, this language trend involves putting the person first, not the disability (e.g. a person with a disability, not a disabled person).  Thus, people-first language tells us what conditions people have, not what they are (Schiefelbusch Institute, 1996). Other suggestions for referring to those with disabilities include:

Discussion: Is the use of people-first language important, or is it just another aspect of political correctness? I ask my students this question, and since our class is primarily about children with disabilities, the answers I get are usually in favor of people-first language. I suspect, however, that not all are willing to state their true opinions. Some may agree with C. Edwin Vaughan 's view (People-First Language: An Unholy Crusade) that people-first language reads awkwardly, does nothing to change attitudes, and may actually draw more attention to a person's disability. Personally, I think most people with disabilities do prefer people-first language, though I acknowledge that I have no hard evidence to support this belief. So, to convince my students of the importance of using people-first language, I ask how many of them are near-sighted. I then ask if they would prefer being referred to as myopic or as a person who wears glasses. If they say that referring to someone as myopic has an additional implication other than one's vision, I simply reply that referring to someone as spastic, crippled, or schizophrenic also implies more than just the meaning of the disability. I then sometimes ask if anyone in class has an astigmatism. Just the thought of being called an astigmatic usually results in at least a few smiles, but the students do get my point.

I conclude this discussion by telling the following story regarding my own sensitivity about being called by my condition: A few years ago I had to go to our local hospital to have some back x-rays taken. Because of some emergencies and broken equipment, I had to wait nearly two hours before I was finally taken to the x-ray room. The x-ray technician, a young woman in her early 20s, was apparently feeling rather frustrated with the delays and equipment breakdowns because she barely made eye contact with me and only mumbled a few terse words in response to my attempts to make conversation. Then, as she was positioning me for the first x-ray, another young woman stuck her head in the door and asked, "Are you about ready to go to lunch?" The x-ray tech looked at me, scrunched up her face, and replied, "Not unless you want to do this scoliosis for me." I suppose I should have said nothing, but I couldn't help myself. I looked her squarely in the eye and said, "First of all, I am not a scoliosis. I am a person who happens to have a scoliosis. And secondly, believe me, you are not going to do me. You are only going to take some x-rays!" Trying to hold back her smile, the young woman in the door made a hasty getaway. The x-ray tech glared at me, but then, perhaps remembering her workshop on people-first language, looked somewhat embarrassed. Though she hardly said another word except admonishing me to hold still a couple of times as she clicked the machine, I believe she got the point. And I think my students do as well. I assume most others, like me, prefer to be thought of as people and not our medical conditions.

Worksheet: Depending on the time available, I either have the students complete the language worksheet in class (usually in pairs or trios), or I ask them to take it home and complete it before the next class. Click here to access the worksheet.

Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (2000). Concepts and Definitions. Boston: Harvard Medical School.

Schiefelbusch Institute for Lifespan Studies. (1996).Shaping Attitudes through Person-First Language. Lawrence, KS: Schiefelbush Institute. (http://www.lsi.ku.edu/news/featured/guidelines.shtml)

Miriam Webster (1999). Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition. Springfield, MA: Miriam-Webster Inc. (http://www.m-w.com/)

Vaughn, C. Edwin. (1999). People-First Language: An Unholy Crusade.  Baltimore: National Federation of the Blind. (http://www.nfb.org/images/nfb/Publications/bm/bm09/bm0903/bm090309.htm)


Return to the Special Education Page

Last updated 11-9-2015.

Questions or comments about this page? My name is
Edmund J. Sass, Ed.D.
You can reach me at