When Good People Say Bad Things

Feb 08, 2011
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It’s not uncommon that people ask me questions about disability. They know it’s what I spend the large majority of my time studying…so it only makes sense. But sometimes those conversations happen when I am least expecting it. Those unexpected conversations, though, always seem to be the best.

I had a few friends over on Friday night – friends that I’ve known for a very long time – and somehow the topic of proper language when referring to someone who has a disability came up. One of the things that came up was whether or not it was ok to refer to people as “wheelchair-bound” or “confined to a wheelchair.” We discussed how that was not an appropriate choice of words, how something like “wheelchair-user” or “someone who uses a wheelchair” would be more appropriate. I explained that instead of thinking of the individual as confined to a wheelchair, it is often helpful to think of the wheelchair as a source of mobility, independence, and freedom for the individual.

But there was something much bigger going through my head than simply clearing up that confusion over language. Questions like that are always good, healthy doses of reality for me. Usually when people use phrases like “confined to a wheelchair” I get all fired up about their lack of awareness, poor choice of words, and the negative messages they are communicating. But these were people that I love and respect – people that I know have nothing but good intentions – and people who are generally quite socially aware. How was it possible that they didn’t already know that saying someone was “wheelchair-bound” was inappropriate?

I was once again reminded of the importance of education…of exposure…of awareness training. In so many situations, people just need to be shown how to act and taught what to say so that their words and actions are not harmful or demeaning. I remembered that in many situations I need to be slow to get upset with the individual and instead I need to take the opportunity to have a discussion to try to help them understand what they are communicating through their words and actions despite their good intentions. That doesn’t mean that frustration and anger are always the wrong answer and that people always have good intentions – but I know that for me a far better response in many situations is to just take a minute to educate people, to help them see outside of their general realm of understanding, in hopes that they will share what they have learned with others so that eventually it becomes common knowledge.

Author: Carolyn



  • Mladen

    This is a common problem with people in my country, where the disability awareness is still on the low level. I often have these discussions with my friends, and it’s good because they are at least interested for discussion. People ask me sometimes: “Are people using wheelchair intellectually healthy?” Most of the people thinking like this do not understand what is disability and what does it mean to have some kind of disability, they are simply not informed enough about this area. I have recently finished master in Adapted Physical Activity, so I am trying to influence at least on people in my close environment related to this topic.:)
    Keep your head up:)

  • C.Lullo

    Thanks for the comment and encouragement! It’s always good to share our own stories as a way of joining together on this journey! Congrats on your masters! :)

  • http://www.spedpac.org JMD

    So how do you explain that “wheelchair bound” is inappropriate? Ever since I read the “people first” statement, I try to be careful about how I refer to people, nevertheless, I still had a long discussion once with a person who had a disability and who argued with me that it’s better to say a child has a “disability” than that a child has “special needs.” To me “disability” immediately brings to mind what the child is not able to do, while “special needs” emphasizes what the child needs.

  • Mladen

    Well, I think that you can not say that they have “special needs”, because they have “needs” as we all do, such as need for happy childhood, for education, employment, to spend time with friends, go to the see side, eat garbage food, sometimes:)….etc. So, we all have special needs, for example if you are a vegetarian, then you need special food for yourself, or if you allergic on nuts, then some cakes are forbidden to you…

  • C. Lullo

    Language can be such a difficult thing – and the disability community is still sorting through the most respectful and dignifying ways to refer to people – so know that you are not alone in struggling to find the best and “right” choice of words. I think that one of the best ways to work through this is to read what others have to say, so I thought I’d share links to a few resources that I have found quite helpful: http://www.disabilityisnatural.com/explore/language-communication; http://www.ncpad.org/exercise/fact_sheet.php?sheet=680&view=all; http://www.thearc.org/page.aspx?pid=2523; http://www.ucp.org/ucp_channeldoc.cfm/1/13/12632/12632-12632/6186

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the links, Carolyn!