Opinion: Need for new terminology to describe persons with disability

By Nirmi Vitarana

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.

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 specially 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

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 of 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 endeavor to protect the dignity of
persons living with disability.

(For more referencing on right terminology can be accessed at

(Author Nirmi Vitarana is a researcher at the International Centre for
Ethnic Studies in Colombo, Sri Lanka)

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