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Words used carelessly, as if they did not matter in any serious way, often allowed otherwise well-guarded truths to seep through.

Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

While it is important to not engage in excessive “language policing” and scrutiny of “politically correct” words, we must appreciate the power language has to shape our thinking  and preferences of disability studies scholars and activists.

Disability activists and scholars engage in evolving the language we use in order to continue to challenge historical thinking and reframe disability. The following criteria can assist us in determining if language reflects a social justice perspective.

  • Locates the problem of disability outside the individual (or as an interaction between the individual and the design)
  • Avoids medicalizing or pathologizing disability
  • Places professionals who work with people with disabilities in positions as facilitators of access rather than ‘helpers’
  • Communicates neutrality of disability, rather than a portraying disability in a negative light

Read, Engage, Reflect



Enter the home page of your site (or the page where you describe your services) in the box marked “Enter URL” on this Word Frequency Counter, then answer the questions below.

  • What did you learn? 
  • What words are most frequently used? 
  • What messages do the most common words send?
  • Do they locate the problem of disability within the individual? 
    • For example, functional limitation, assistance, support, documentation, etc.
  • Or do they locate the problem of disability outside the individual?
    • For example, barrier, design, environment, etc.
  • Do they avoid pathologizing disability? 
  • Do they give a negative image of disability?


  • What main points do you take away?
  • What messages does your website send about disability?
  • How is disability represented?
  • Is disability pathologized or medicalized?
  • Where does it locate the “problem” of disability?
  • How is the role of the professional represented?
  • Does it maintain or challenge the dominant frame of disability?
  • How might this be different?
  • What is the potential impact of this change?

Why Does this Matter?

Service providers consider the impact of language tend to ask the following questions when discussing barriers and accommodations: 

  • What brings you here?
  • What barriers would you anticipate experiencing on the job?
  • Have there been work settings in which you did not experience these barriers?  What made the difference?
  • What barriers do you anticipate in the classroom?
  • What about outside the classroom?
  • What designs of exams have worked best for you in the past?

Service providers who do not consider the impact of language in their work tend to ask the following questions when discussing barriers and accommodations:  

  • What are your functional limitations?
  • How do your limitations impact your ability to work?
  • How does your disability impact you in the classroom?
  • What difficulties do you have reading?
  • Does your disability impair your ability to take exams?

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