Euphemisms for Disability are Infantalizing

Image Description: a hand places disability label cards onto illustrations of children. Still taken from this youtube video


I have written about the importance of language as it relates to disability before. To oppose the idea that clear language should be avoided in favour of what can best be described as pretending difference doesn’t exist to opposing the replacement of clear language with euphemisms.

Euphemisms are rampant in disability discourse. There is this misguided idea that disability must be softened and made palatable.

This comes from general assumptions that the word disabled is negative and shouldn’t be used to describe people and from watching words that relate to disability be adopted by society as insults.

The best example of this can be seen in the evolution of language around intellectual disability. In the early, to mid-20th-century people began to realize that language utilized to describe intellectual disability had been adopted by the dominant population as insults. Words such as idiot and moron which had been medical terms are now commonly used with the intent to offend. In order to combat this, a new term was adopted in order to have an accurate medical term which was not tainted by having become an insult. That word was “retard”. This word two has long since become an insult and there is a movement to have it struck from the lexicon.

As new words became insults, the search for new language continued but instead of changing direct medical terminology people began substituting euphemisms. Terms like “special needs”, “differently abled”, “physically/mentally challenged” and “diffabled” etc. began being used in an attempt to distance disabled people from the way language continued to be used to stigmatize disability.

The thing is though, this doesn’t work. While language has become a way to stigmatize disability by weaponizing it against both the people it was initially meant to simply describe and the general population along with inanimate objects. Basically, anything that causes people displeasure might now be described with a word originally intended to describe disability.

This really isn’t particularly surprising, the problem has never been language until it was used as a weapon. The problem was that disabled people are stigmatized and as a result, things associated with them including language become associated with that stigma.
And yet, many people continue to look for the right kind of faux positive wording that will magically erase centuries of systemic prejudice without actually engaging and challenging the core of that prejudice.

Members of the disability community have fought against the lack of clarity and reductionist nature of euphemisms by reclaiming a disabled identity and intentionally using the word disabled. Disability rights activist Lawrence Carter-Long created the #saytheword campaign to advocate for using the word disabled.

Despite this, many people outside the disability community and even some within it continue to hope that they can find that magical term which will somehow unlink language associated with disability from the stigma associated with disabled people.

I have repeatedly, made all of the arguments about how euphemisms for disability simply do not work how they undermine clarity and reinforce negative associations with disability by going to such ridiculous lengths to so much as mention disability. What I’ve been thinking about most lately in regards to euphemisms, however, is simply how infantalizing they are.

Euphemisms used for disability are either overly cutesy like “special needs” or linguistically awkward such as “differently abled”. Often they are a combination of the two like “diffabled”. A friend just posted on Twitter that they had also just heard a new term “specially abled” which again combines linguistic awkwardness with overly cutesy language. I am uncomfortable with all of it.

I am a 30-year-old woman and I cannot think of a single professional setting in which I need to discuss issues pertaining to my disability such as accommodation where I would go into that situation and say,

“Hi, I have special needs and I need to discuss workplace accommodations”


“Hi, I’m diffabled, who do I talk to about getting speech to text software on my computer”

These terms have no place in a professional or academic environment. They sound childish and are ultimately confusing. The term “diffabled” is so awkward that it may simply be interpreted that the speaker has simply stumbled over the word disabled. Even if it is heard and received as intended completely lacks clarity and people might be confused.

There is also the very important reality that terms like disabled have legal meanings that come with legal protections such as rights to accommodation and dancing around with euphemisms could very likely create barriers to accessing those accommodations.
Cutesy language is for children but terms like “special needs” and “differently abled” are not words that we are meant to grow out of and find the appropriate terms and adulthood. These are words some people advocate should replace clearer words.
I can only surmise that whoever came up with these words genuinely does not expect anyone that these words describe to actually grow up. To actually have to interact in the adult world and present words that seem fit only to coo in a high-pitched voice at an infant about something other than disability.

So, in addition to rejecting the word disabled, euphemisms for disability are also creating cultural understandings of disability and those understandings do not support prolonged inclusion. They are fundamentally inconsistent with being taken seriously as an adult.

Their positivity is only true in the context of presenting disabled people as children.
In the end, euphemisms reinforce the very thing that they were created to challenge.

They reinforce negative understandings of disability and maintain false impression that disabled people are eternal children.


This is an inappropriate burden to place on any disabled person. Shifting from insults to being framed in childish terms is not an improvement.

It certainly hasn’t done anything to challenge the ingrained systemic prejudice disabled people face. If anything it has added to it.



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9 thoughts on “Euphemisms for Disability are Infantalizing

  1. A person called Lynden Hall [spelling?] used the word “diffability”.

    And I think self-advocate may be one of those infantilising words as well.

    Maybe if the children need and want honesty and demand it from their peers and elders and betters, they will probably get it.

    And is the other cover-up card “cerebral palsy”? “Wheelchair user”?

    And when I first read in the World Book – “A disabled person’s job is to put others/the world at ease” – I think Ed Roberts may have had a hand in it. [the writing of the Disability article in the 1990s].

    Nondisabled people are thinking very short-term – the length of the interaction, say.

    And then there’s the whole “superhero” / “special abilities” construct.


  2. I’m in social work school. The national association of social workers (NASW) changed the wording in the ethics code from “disabilities” to something like “of all abilities.” Having a disability, I find this to be a problem because I am just as able as anyone else in most capacities. My disability is not a reflection of my abilities but of my illness.

    I discussed this with three non-disabled social workers, who believe this change represents less stigmatizing language. It seems like erasure on one hand, and insulting on the other. It was pointed out that many with disabilities would agree with the changes. I wonder if this is true. NASW is a membership organization. Were any social workers with disabilities asked?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sarah:

      I have seen “all abilities” when describing playgrounds or other places which are affected by architectural barriers.

      And – like with “neurodivergent” / “neurodiverse” – “all abilities” has a difference when it comes to a group of person versus one person.

      It might be an idea to ask the Australian Association of Social Workers and what the disabled members of that association think.

      I have also seen disAbility or dis/ability in social work worlds.

      Might get a look at that Code of Ethics!

      And also what the Professional Social Workers’ Association [they seem to be based in Tamil Nadu] and the International Federation of Social Work.

      “Less stigmatising language than what was there before? Less stigimatising language than the general public would use?”

      I think at least some would agree, but probably not a majority.

      If even one person agrees and knows of the effects on social work and the larger world…


  3. I just wanted to say this is a fantastic article. I have autism, and “infantilization” as its described here bothers me a great deal. Fortunately (or unfortunately) I look pretty normal, so I dont have to deal with this kinda stuff often.


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