Need for new terminology to ensure dignity of the disabled | Sunday Observer

Need for new terminology to ensure dignity of the disabled

A friend recently shared an article published in an online edition of an English medium national newspaper. The article was well intentioned, and spoke about the weakness of non-compliance to universal accessibility regulations in Sri Lanka’s infrastructure and public spaces, and which results in marginalizing a significant minority in our society – who the writer references as the less abled.

This prejudiced use of terminology vexed me, and reminded me of the varying occasions where I had been privy to conferences, discussions and policy forums where an assortment of discriminatory and demeaning terminology is casually used.

Changing perceptions

The topic of disability has evolved over decades, just as any topic related to human conditions, and with the changing perceptions fueled by interdisciplinary studies about disability; terminology pertaining to disability has also metamorphosed.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities came into force in 2008 and has been instrumental in fueling a right based framework globally.

Prior to the Convention, disability was innocuously attended through a combination of medical treatment and charitable giving.

Terminology such as differently abled, handicapped, special children, and especially abled were comfortably placed and used within a model of charity – where it was perceived that anyone with a disability must be helped. With the charitable mindset, there is also the perception that a disabled body is less.

The Convention asserts that while anyone can be born with a physical impairment or have an impairment later in life due to accidents, medical conditions and aging; it is not the impairment which causes disability but it is society – infrastructure and attitudes – which makes a person disabled.

This social model on disability and the premise that it is society which discriminates persons with disabilities and create barriers to the enjoyment of their rights was an established debate among disabled people’s organizations and disability rights activists across the world.

Varying categories

It was the collective voice of persons with disabilities, care-givers, rights activists and disabled people’s organizations which demanded governments to provide equitable resources and opportunities to enable a dignified and independent life for persons with disabilities, including the adoption of right terminology.

The Convention was drawn up with extensive participation by persons with disabilities, and assigns responsibility to acceding governments to shift from mere charitable (social protection) and medical (treatment) service to a right based process to ensure that persons with disabilities are treated with dignity, and enjoy equal access and participation, just as any citizen.

The Convention upholds dignity and human rights and advises to do away with discriminatory and demeaning terminology which perpetuate views that persons with disability are less and different ; and in place adhere to terminology prescribed in the Convention for varying categories of persons living with disability are – (a) persons/children/women with disability, and those termed as blind, should be referenced from a person centered perspective as (b) Person who is blind or persons with visual impairment; Similarly terms such as deaf and mute must be disused and in place (c) Person who is deaf or person with hearing impairment and person who is speech impaired; and derogatory terms such as retarded, deranged, must be abolished and right terminology (d) learning disability, developmental disability and psychological disability must be adopted and used.


The government of Sri Lanka ratified and acceded to the Convention in February, 2016.

Therefore, the government has an onus to ensure that the dignity of persons with disabilities are not compromised by continuing to use discriminatory terminology in public discourse, when formulating new policy, government circulars and in national media.

A key step would be for the government through a higher authority to Gazette recommended terminology on disability in Sinhala, Tamil and English, referencing the Convention and make it mandatory that all Ministries and Departments are in adherence.

The government can liaise with national level Disabled People’s Organizations, civil society organizations committed to disability rights and independent disability rights advocates in this endeavour to protect the dignity of persons living with disability.

(The writer is a Researcher – International Centre for Ethnic Studies.)