Language Matters

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Tim: I think language shapes the way society views people with disabilities. 


Title: Language Matters 


Ellen: Language can be used in a way that's harmful, that communicates that we are lesser.  


Tim: In high school I was often called retard. Even just hearing it used in television or pop culture can be quite hurtful. 


Trevor: Spastic, spastic plastic. They are pretty horrible words to describe a person.  


Esther: Words like ‘cripple’, they don't actually identify me as a person. They identify me as a disability. 


Tim: It's usually just I find people talking to me in a patronising way, as if I’m a child.  


Jae-Marie: Like, I wonder how much journalism students are taught about how to talk about people with disabilities. I think there is still very much an angle of pity and an angle of this will get readers. 


Tim: When they throw the word ‘suffering’ in, it tends to bother me, but that does definitely tend to mean they should be pitied. 


Trevor: I have cerebral palsy. I don’t suffer from cerebral palsy. There is nothing about cerebral palsy that I suffer from. 


Esther: ‘Wheelchair bound,’ I hear that a lot in the media. It becomes about a story about the wheelchair. It’s not about the person. 


Trevor: I’m not bound to my wheelchair. My wheelchair is actually an enabler to my life. So yeah, I use a wheelchair.  


Esther: When people are trying to replace the word ‘disability’with other words like ‘special,’ to me, personally, I wouldn't do that. 


Ellen: I don’t like the word special. What does that actually mean? 


Trevor: Going away for a significant trip, that’s special. An anniversary, whatever.


Ellen: If you don't say the word disability, then some people will take that to mean that it’s a shameful word. 


Jae-Marie: The words for me that are the hardest to deal with are the words like, ‘you're so inspirational.’ 


Ellen: The assumption is that you can't do anything in this world, so when you do that ordinary thing, somehow you’re defying the odds. 


Jae-Marie: I get it a lot when I'm like, ‘”Oh, yes, I go to uni or graduated uni,” and people are like, “Oh such an inspiration.” Okay, but so many of us do that every day.  


Ellen: One person came up to me and said, “A lot of girls they may have all beauty, but they don't have it up here, whereas you've got it up here.” She was intending it to be a compliment. But it wasn't a compliment at all.


Jae-Marie: I've been told a few times, "It's a real shame you're in a wheelchair, if you weren’t you would be so pretty." Like those two things are not mutually exclusive. But now I know that you think they are. 


Esther: Like we're creating a society of categorising people, stigmatising people, and it impacts on people mentally. 


Ellen: When you hear those messages repeatedly, from the media, from people in the street, from your own family sometimes, it can really start to corrode your sense of worth. 


Tim: Definitely. I feel that I've definitely had to overcome the stigma and assumptions that people have of people with disabilities. 


Esther: I said, I cannot do this. I'm not able to do this because this is what people are saying. But then one day I decided hang on a minute, I don't have to live like that. I know I have a disability. Disability is not inability. 


Title: So what words should we use? 


Ellen: So person-first language is the idea that you are a person before you are a person with a disability. So instead of saying ‘wheelchair bound’ or ‘disabled person’, you would say, “I am a person with a disability.” You also have identity-first language, which is where your identity is something that you can claim. So, “I am disabled.”  


Trevor: I prefer to use the language of person-first, whether that be physical disability, intellectual disability, whatever. They are people first. And I think that’s the foremost that we've got to remember out of all this is that we are talking about people. 


Esther: It’s the person that has the disability. So let us address the person as a person. Get to know the person as a person, not as a disability. 


Tim: I’d definitely go with the person with a disability one. So it means that the disability part is secondary to who they are as a person. What's on surface isn’t who they are. It is what’s underneath. 


Jae-Marie: I use identity-first because I think disabled as a descriptor is only a negative descriptor if we give it negative connotations. It has negative connotations because society says being disabled is bad. Disabled isn’t- The word isn't inherently bad. It's just a descriptor. So I don't say I'm a person who's a woman. I say, I'm a woman, because my personhood is already implied. Whereas somehow, then I'm saying disability. Now, my personhood is not implied. To me, that's more of a societal issue, rather than the word.  


Ellen: If you ask someone how they would like to describe themselves, and you use whatever word that person has used, then there is nothing to worry about. 


Jae-Marie: I think when we talk about the incorrect language or the language we don't want, instead of being scared of that, I think able-bodied people and disabled people should be happy that we're finally getting a voice to say, “this is what language we want.” 


Trevor: Don't allow this type of video to scare you off. It’s to encourage you to probe a bit further and find out what the person with disability wants you to know.  


Ellen: Create a little bit of a rule with yourself, which is that my job is to listen. And I'll ask questions with good intention without any assumption. And it's okay if I make a mistake. 


Esther: So, if you make a mistake, don't shy away, don't run away. There's no human being who is perfect. We all make mistakes. So it's okay to make a mistake. If you make a mistake, you can learn from that. 


Title: Be a better ally starting with language. 


Title: We thank the pariticpants for sharing their wisdom and experience. In order of appearance: Tim Cahalan, Ellen Fraser-Barbour, Trevor Harrison, Esther Simbi, Jae-Marie Jaensch.


Title: Filmed, directed & edited by Carey Scheer. Camera assistance by Marc Gierke. Music by Capo Productions. Supported by Government of South Australia. Department of Human Services.


Title: [JFA Purple Orange Logo] Working to create a world where people living with disability have a fair go at what life has to offer. For more information, contact JFA Purple Orange. Phone 08 8373 8388, Email:, Web: