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Political Correctness and the Language of Disability

We are living in a highly-charged political climate where words slash at egos like Chinese throwing stars. Words count. They hurt. We bleed not in the brain, but in the mind and spirit when the wrong words find our ears. The internet is full of articles about what’s in and what’s out. I don’t know about you, but I struggle to keep up.

They’re not called that anymore

Often I learn the latest correct term by using the wrong one in a conversation. For example, years ago I was chatting with a coworker married to a woman employed by an airline. “Oh,” I said, “is she a stewardess?” His previously separate eyebrows came together to form one. “Airline attendant,” he hissed between clenched teeth, “they’re not called stewardesses anymore.” How ignorant of me. I rarely traveled by air, a choice that left me pathetically uninformed and out of the loop. I never used the word stewardess again. Embarrassing, but effective.

My latest head-scratching session concerns what our aboriginal population wants to be called. In my youth it was always Indians. Later it became Native Americans. But just the other day I read a piece insisting that aboriginal people call themselves Indians and prefer that label. I’ve yet to read anything definitive, something that either declares a consensus across all tribes or that describes what each tribe would like to be called. It makes me think of the movie Little Big Man (1970), where Dustin Hoffman becomes a member of the Cheyenne tribe. The Cheyenne called themselves “human beings,” a designation they didn’t extend to white people. I always liked that.

The confusing MS playbook

No less confusing is the playbook for how to address people like us. See how I avoided using labels there? Heh-heh. I can’t keep that up indefinitely, though. Weirdly, I’ve stumbled over my words online and gotten a stern protest from a fellow patient. I used to use “MSers” to describe us – until one day a reader chastised me. “I was really into what you wrote in your article — but then you ruined it by using MSer. I hate that. I’m so disappointed in you.” Okay. It used to be the thing to use and I just didn’t get the memo to kill it. But what are we called now?

I’m not an orangutan

I often use “disabled people” in my writing and speech. But a Facebook video shot that one down just this morning. “I’m not a disabled person,” a woman with Lupus declared, “I’m a person with a disability. Person first, disability second.” I like that. But frankly, it doesn’t sound like something to be used personally. Wouldn’t we say “I have a disability?” I feel kind of silly saying “I’m a person” when it’s obvious I’m that and not an orangutan. What’s more, I’m a person with a disability seems rather stiff and formal, not to mention a little nutty switching point of view from 1st to 3rd person. It sounds like I’m not even in the room. Or in my body. A ventriloquist throwing her voice from behind a curtain.

Another touchy one

Another touchy one has to do with wheelchairs. Being wheelchair-bound went out with the Downton Abbey series finale. “I use a wheelchair,” a person-who-is-mobility-challenged said recently. “I’m not in a wheelchair. I’m not bound to it. I can walk with a cane and crutches. I just use the chair if I need to.”

I like that one a lot. Someday, I’ll get the hang of it. It would help if someone would publish a thesaurus specifically with terms for disabled people — I mean, people with disabilities.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Carol
    7 months ago

    Oops, I didn’t realize that we aren’t supposed to refer to ourselves as MSers. And, of course, I always refer to myself as a disabled person instead of a person with a disability. Does that mean that we are supposed to say that we are a person with MS to be politically correct?

  • Janus
    8 months ago

    Thank you Kim,
    I woke up this a.m. with symptoms of a cold & feeling kind of yucky. When I came to the part of your article…( column? writing?) That said we are not orangatans, it gave me quite a chuckle! A bit of humor to start the day…

  • ChristinaU78
    8 months ago

    I am so over people being so sensitive to what seems like everything. I have never said anything because I was trying to belittle someone or make them feel less worthy. It seems like people just get their feelings hurt to easily nowadays. I offended a lady for calling her ma’am the other day. To me, as the definition of the word states, it’s a term of respect for a woman. It’s very frustrating! Okay, rant over 😉

  • rldoll67
    8 months ago

    I’m not particularly politically correct as I see it as an attack on free speech and limiting in our ability to express concepts…we need more words, not less. Anyways, I don’t mind addressing a person as they see fit, however I won’t tolerate righteous indignation because I didn’t choose words another thinks is appropriate. Labels can confine thinking and to me, MS is such a broad topic and affects so many so differently. I, for one, am terribly stubborn about giving in…by that I mean I won’t sit in a wheel chair. I hate that I have to walk with a cane now and only started that a year ago. I now park in handicap spots…when I worked still, I would not park in those spots…I just don’t want to give in until I ‘have to’. I think people that correct your speech and labels have a bigger problem with themselves than they do you.
    One memory, my wife and I were at Lowes and parked in a handicap space. We went in, and as often the case, I got tired (don’t use a scooter; see above) and came back to my truck to wait. She returned with her cart as I sat in the truck and a “do-gooder” confronted her about using the handicap spot when she clearly was not handicapped. That honked me off to say the least and she handled it before I could get out and join the discussion…probably a good thing. Anyways, I have MS and I am disabled. Call me what you will as others words do not define who I am or what I’m about. I fight when and where I can against political correctness…seems very Orwellion to me…and take every opportunity to educate others about MS. When the student is ready, a teacher will appear. I don’t waste my time on people who have it all figured out.

  • Shelby Comito moderator
    8 months ago

    Thank you for your comment, @rldoll67! I think you voice an interesting and important perspective, and I love that you take confrontations like these as an opportunity to educate others about MS. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with our community. Warmest wishes, Shelby, Team Member

  • @masbrautigam
    8 months ago

    Oh wow!! I travel a lot and I didn’t know stewardess was called different. Actually I just flew from Europe to Dubai to Singapore, my third trip this year.
    Having MS I seem to say a lot of words wrong:( great article!

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