After a brief hiatus, we're picking our series of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) terms back up!
This month we're looking at different ways of addressing people with disabilities.
We'll give an overview of different terms' history and acceptance—like able bodied and disabled, as well as disabled or differently abled—and address the myth that there's only one "politically correct" term for disabled people or people with disabilities. (Spoiler alert: there's not, since just like past DEI terms we've covered such as BIPOC and Latinx, it's up to individual people from those communities to determine how they'd like to be addressed or described.)
Historical context on disability in the public sphere
Bear with me for a moment as we zoom back to cover the history of how disability has been perceived, treated, legislated, and addressed. People with disabilities have long faced the same kind of mistreatment as other out-groups, but the disability rights movement isn't enshrined in history books like similar movements for civil rights, women's rights, or gay rights. It's hard to dive into the minutiae of different terms without understanding just how far the world has come in how it sees disability—and just how far it has to go. Much of the below context is drawn from Minnesota's Council on Developmental Disabilities' in-depth archive and history project, "Parallels in Time: A History of Developmental Disabilities."
We'll start with the Roman empire, where people saw disability as a mark of divine wrath and laws stated that children with disabilities should be put to death.
It was a pretty big deal, then, when Jesus came on the scene and publicly spent time with people with disabilities and illnesses; some scholars credit Christianity with sparking more humane treatment of people with disabilities. In the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church started asylums for certain communities, including abandoned infants and people with disabilities.
It wasn't until Elizabethan England that governments started to provide care for people living in poverty and with disabilities, and it took the French Revolution for society to accept the idea that humanity itself conferred dignity, and that people with disabilities deserved care and help, not ostracization and punishing conditions. It would be centuries until that actually happened, though.
While doctors and scientists began to study disability in the 19th century, the prevailing beliefs at the time—including belief in phrenology, or the idea that skull shapes determined human characteristics—were rudimentary at best, and objectively incorrect and damaging at worst.
The U.S. government began trying to track people with disabilities in the 1950s, when it included questions about "mental retardation" on the Census. Many local governments institutionalized people of all ages with all levels of disabilities in dehumanizing conditions. The first special education classes in the U.S. began in 1896.
In the early 20th century, people with disabilities were still largely mistreated in the U.S. Hitler's Germany targeted people with disabilities as part of its campaign of ethnic cleansing.
As social movements began to grow in the post-WWII economic boom and people had leisure time and more access to education, people started to organize around rights for those with disabilities. Parents' associations began to form in the 1950s and put public pressure on governments, and terminology began to shift from "retard," "moron," and other terms now understood to be extremely derogatory, to other still-problematic terms like "handicapped."
In 1962, President John F. Kennedy, whose sister Rosemary had "mental retardation," created a panel to study the subject. In 1970, Congress introduced the Developmental Disabilities Services and Facilities Construction Amendments, which were updated throughout the 1970s, 80s, and 90s to fund "comprehensive services for people with disabilities" in the U.S. In 1975, the U.N. adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons, centered on human dignity, civil and political rights, right to medical treatment, rights to participate in social activities, and more.
In the 1970s and 80s, the movement around people with disabilities focused on encouraging independent living, or the idea that people with disabilities could make decisions about their own lives and activities (versus that power lying with institutions or families).
In 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities act, the first sweeping legislation that addressed discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, public services, public accommodations, and telecommunications.
Now, central tenets of the disability rights movement include inclusive language (we'll get to that in a movement), a shift in seeing disability not as a deficiency but as a strength, and the acknowledgement that society and its barriers are the real disability.
Respectful language: is there a "politically-correct" term for disabled?
Over the last few decades, terminology used to describe people with disabilities has changed drastically, and there's not one single term or reference that "won" the debate. Even the predominant term I'm using here—people with disabilities—isn't universally accepted.
Here's some framing from a New York Times op-ed by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, a founding director of the Disability Studies Initiative at Emory University:
When I lecture about disability, someone always wants to know — either defensively, earnestly or cluelessly — the "correct" way to refer to this new politicized identity. What we call ourselves can also be controversial. Different constituencies have vibrant debates about the politics of self-naming. "People first" language asserts that if we call ourselves "people with disabilities," we put our humanity first and consider our impairment a modification. Others claim disability pride by getting our identity right up front, making us "disabled people." Others, like many sign language users, reject the term "disability."
The old way of talking about disability as a curse, tragedy, misfortune or individual failing is no longer appropriate, but we are unsure about what more progressive, more polite, language to use. "Crippled," "handicapped" and "feebleminded" are outdated and derogatory. Many pre-Holocaust eugenic categories that were indicators for state-sponsored sterilization or extermination policies — "idiot," "moron," "imbecile" and even "mentally retarded" — have been discarded in favor of terms such as "developmentally delayed" or "intellectually disabled."
The U.S. tends to use "people with disabilities" and the UK tends to use "disabled people." Around the world, referring to people with disabilities as their medical diagnosis is inappropriate. For example, you should say "the woman with epilepsy" instead of "the epileptic" and "blind people" instead of "the blind". (Note that "blind people" is an example of identify-first language, instead of people-first constructions like "person who is blind"; I'm using that here because that's what the National Federation of the Blind prefers. Also note that the NFB breaks the "rule" of not using "the" + a disability to describe a group of people with that disability in their very name. See how important it is to listen to individuals and communities as to how they'd like to be referenced versus relying on a set of guidelines?)
A brief and not-exclusive glossary of terms related to disability
The golden rule of writing about disability or addressing people with disabilities is to ask individuals how they prefer to be addressed. But when you can't ask individuals, here are some terms to understand and to decide between, drawn from resources from the American Psychological Association and the National Center on Disability and Journalism:
Terms to use:
Person with (impairment): This structure describes the person and their functioning, rather than reducing them to their diagnosis.
Person with disability, or disabled person: Generally the best ways to refer to people who have physical or mental impairments that "substantially limit one or more major life activities."
Terms to avoid:
Able-bodied: Describes someone who doesn't identify as having a disability. It implies that people with disabilities lack "able bodies," though, which many people take offense at.
Afflicted with: Suggests that a person with a disability is suffering.
Crazy, insane, psycho: Offensive terms to refer to mental health.
Differently abled: Previously touted as an alternative to "disabled," which means "not abled" and thus suggests people who are disabled lack an ability to live their lives. It's now considered a condescending way to discuss disability, or worse, a way to avoid addressing it altogether. After all, we're all differently abled.
Suffers from: Suggests that people with disabilities have overall lower-quality lives.
For more guidelines on what to use and to avoid based on specific disabilities, review the NCDJ's style guide.
And for suggestions on what terms you'd like us to cover next, send us a note at email@example.com.
For the second entry in our monthly glossary of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) terms, we're going to focus on Latinx. We'll cover common questions like "What's Latinx mean?", "Where did Latinx come from?", and "What's the difference between Latinx and Latino?"
If you didn't read our first entry on the term BIPOC, you can check it out here. And as always, our goal in this series, along with all of our blog pieces, is to provide resources and support to make all workplaces more inclusive of all talent. We know that the DEI landscape is always evolving and that we're all continuously learning to be better allies and advocates. If there are other terms you have questions about, feel free to let us know in the comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org!
What does the term Latinx mean?
Latinx, pronounced as lah-TEEN-ex, is a gender-neutral way to describe people of Latin American heritage.
What's the difference between Latinx and Latino?
Spanish, like many other languages, is gendered. Nouns are either masculine or feminine, and when a group of people includes both men and women, words describing them default to the masculine. For example, a woman from Latin America is a Latina, a man is a Latino, and a group made up of nine women and one man is a group of Latinos.
People who fall outside of the gender binary and aren't represented by that divide often find Latinx to be more inclusive than Latino. Similarly, some women prefer Latinx to "Latinos" because they feel that using masculine terms as an inclusive default reflects problematic social norms and actually isn't very inclusive at all. The trend of expanding inclusion with an "x" is found in English, too; perhaps you've seen people using "folx" instead of "folks." They do that not because "folks" is gendered, but because the "x" expressly welcomes people with non-normative sexual orientations or gender identities, explains DEI podcast For Folx Sake.
Latinx is related to other attempts to make the Spanish language more inclusive, like "lenguaje para todes," a movement in Argentina and other Spanish-speaking countries to eliminate gender in language covered by the Washington Post. The word "Latino" has been a particular sticking point for decades; a popular permutation in the early 2000s was "Latin@," which combined the "a" and the "o" for a neutral alternative that worked online, but it reinforced the gender binary and wasn't quite pronounceable. (In fairness, a similar criticism has been lobbed at Latinx, which has a generally anglicized and hotly debated pronunciation.)
Latinx, Latino, and Latin@ all mean the same thing—they describe people hailing from Latin America—but Latinx has come to be an especially inclusive version of it that embraces the diverse set of experiences shared by that community. As writer John Paul Brammer wrote in an incredible essay for Mother Jones: "As the biracial son of Mexican immigrants, I have, at various stages of my life, described myself as Latino, Mexican American, Hispanic, and Chicano. None of these words ever felt quite right…I felt I had inherited a chaotic identity with too many facets; language, race, geography—which one should win out? But mestizaje tells us it is precisely this struggle, the search for a cohesive identity, that defines us as a people…I can think of no better extension of that sentiment than 'Latinx,' a word that concedes to malleability, the 'x' willing to become whatever it needs to be for the person who wears it."
Latinx vs. Hispanic: Latinidad, language, geography, and race
In the 1970s, when the U.S. Census Bureau was trying to figure out how to identify and count the growing group of U.S. citizens and residents who were from places like Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Cuba, they came up with the term "Hispanic," reports the History Channel. Hispanic refers to anyone who speaks Spanish, which includes Spaniards and excludes those with roots in non-Spanish-speaking Latin American countries like Brazil.
But some people who fell under the Hispanic banner didn't like the fact that the word used to describe their cultural background was so linked to that of their colonizer, Spain, and preferred a different descriptor: "Latino," referring to people residing in Latin America or descended from people who resided there.
A 1992 New York Times headline sums it up well: "What's the Problem with 'Hispanic'? Just Ask a 'Latino.'" Sandra Cisneros, author of the much-acclaimed The House on Mango Street, told the writer of that article, "To say Latino is to say you come to my culture in a manner of respect…To say Hispanic means you're so colonized you don't even know for yourself or someone who named you never bothered to ask what you call yourself." That's Cisneros's view, but there's no clear consensus on which term is preferred; a 2013 Pew Research Center study found that half of the Americans who identify as either Hispanic or Latino had no preference over terms, and that when they did, it varied by geography.
But neither term—not Hispanic and not Latinx—refers to race. Remember: Hispanic refers to language spoken and Latinx refers to geography. For example, a white woman from Spain might identify as Hispanic. So might a white man with roots in Chile, though he might also identify as Latinx or Latino. A Black woman whose family came from Brazil might identify as a non-Hispanic Latina or Latinx. A Zapotec man from what is today Oaxaca, Mexico might identify as Latino or Latinx along with Zapotec or Mexican; if he speaks Spanish as well as one or more of the 58 languages spoken by the Zapotec people, he might also consider himself Hispanic. There's no one racial background shared by all Latinxs; Latinx could refer to someone white, Afro-Latinx, Asian-Latinx, or mestizo, which usually refers to mixed-race people with both Indigenous and European ancestry.
Where did Latinx come from?
Brammer's Mother Jones piece traced the origins of Latinx to its first appearance on Google Trends in 2004. Journalist Yara Simón, in her History Channel piece, quoted David Bowles, a Mexican-American linguist and professor, who suggested that it was inspired by Latin American feminist protests in the 1970s, where protesters Xed-out words ending in "os" to signify a rejection of the masculine as default. Both agree that it became more popular in the 2010s when it was adopted by the LGBTQ community and that it's more used by people of Latin American descent currently living in the United States than it is by people living in Latin America itself.
Linguist John McWhorter wrote in The Atlantic that Latinx "can't catch on" because the gender issue in Spanish is "largely discussed among the intelligentsia," rather than a problem—and Latinx a solution—identified by everyday people. But that's changing, as more and more native Spanish speakers confront the gender bias in their language.
We're also very sensitive to the not uncommon criticism that the term anglicizes the words "Latina" and "Latino.' In his piece "Why I Won't Use Latinx," writer Josh Inocéncio explains:
"While some folks do say 'Latin-equis,' which is the Spanish sound for the letter x, the most popular pronunciation is currently the English way. Thus, Latino and Latina, which are easily pronounced with U.S. American and Latin American accents, are losing traction to the more Anglicized Latinx. Instead, I'm not sure why we don't use 'Latine,' which is more consistent with Spanish pronunciations and is gender neutral. The x is also creating a grammatical headache for words beyond the gender-neutral descriptor. In online dialogues, people are applying the x to other words, such as "mis amigxs" instead of "mis amigos" or "mis amigas." There's no sound way to pronounce 'amigxs' in Spanish."
So, given so many differing opinions, which word should you use?
Like with other terms used to describe someone's identity, there's no one right word. It comes down to each individual's preference. Some may prefer Hispanic, others Latinx, and still others may prefer to be identified by their country of origin or heritage (Mexican, Dominican, Venezuelan, etc.). Here at PowerToFly, we strive to use Latinx if there's no individual preference to consider. AP Style's take is different; they default to Latino and only use Latinx if it's requested and run with a short explanation like so: "Hernandez prefers the gender-neutral term Latinx."
The best way to know whether you should use Latinx or something else? Just ask.