Why you shouldn’t call anyone blind or deaf? So what if it’s a pedestrian who jumps in front of your car…

By Shruti Pushkarna

Shruti PushkarnaAs a little girl, I enjoyed going to book fairs and fetes with my father. Apart from the daddy-daughter time, I looked forward to buying new toys, books and other items of interest. Here’s a picture of a painted rock I picked out on one such outing. The text on the rock reads: “Daggers and spears are not as sharp as tongues.”


A picture of a painted rock I picked. The text on the rock reads: Daggers and spears are not as sharp as tongues.

I think my father was a bit intrigued at the choice of a four-year-old, wondering if I really understood what the quote meant. Words can either hurt or heal, was a lesson I grew up with. I was repeatedly told that once uttered, you can never take back your words. So I need to be cautious of what and how I communicate.


Language is a big part of our cultural identity, in how it shapes us. Terminology, over a period of time, seeps so deep into the fabric of society that certain words become synonymous with ideas, people, situations and communities. We often don’t even realise how the choice of words stems from an almost subconscious state of mind.


Let’s be honest. How many of us while driving, have rolled down the window and yelled at a pedestrian who suddenly jumped in front of the car, “Are you blind?” Or incessantly honked at someone ahead of us who refused to move, screaming, “Are you deaf?”


When I was in school, some teachers would often address the weaker students as dumb or retarded. And since school bears such a great influence on a child’s mind, most of us grew up thinking these terms were ‘okay’ to use.


Persons with disabilities have been raging an eternal battle against stereotypes, misconceptions and inappropriate language. Unfortunately, common usage has made some phrases, an intrinsic part of urban parlance. These are no longer restricted to addressing a person with a specific physical or mental condition. The negative connotation of such terms, initially associated with disability, has extended to a wide spectrum of people. Regular utterances include lame, deaf, mental, dumb, freak and so on. Come to think of it, I find it hard to keep track of the times I’m going wrong.


But gradually things are improving. Today, people are able to recognise certain terms as outrightly offensive. In October 2020, actress-turned-politician, Khushbu Sundar called the Congress a “mentally retarded” party. Following a hue and cry by rights group and twitterati, the newly inducted BJP MP had to apologise for her insensitive remarks. It helped that the media was up in arms too. But very often, the media overlooks (and even uses) wrong phraseology, due to its own lack of understanding.


In his first term, Prime Minister Narendra Modi replaced the term ‘viklang’ with ‘divyang’, moving towards a more positive, divine perception. The new Disabilities Act also laid greater emphasis on rights and dignity, with a promise to ‘empower’. In fact, Section 92 (a) of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 carries a minimum prison term of six months that may go up to five years for publicly insulting a person with disability. And yet, politicians including cabinet ministers continue using terms like handicapped, physically challenged or mentally retarded, mindless of the damage they cause.


There was a recent Twitter post which pointed out the obnoxious language used by the Karnataka Sports Association for Physically Handicapped. The official poster (image below) called for participants who are blind, dwarf, mentally retarded and physically challenged. There was no mention of politically correct terms like persons with blindness or dwarfism, or intellectual disability.



Maybe it’s time that establishments, including government bodies, corporates, media, education institutions and disability organisations put together a Code of Conduct and guidelines clarifying the Do’s and Don’ts. I’m still a novice in the domain, but for starters, I have curated my own list.


Words to Avoid


Abnormal: There is nothing abnormal about a person with disability, their condition simply doesn’t fit our general understanding of ‘normal’. The ‘norm’ is relative to people from varied backgrounds and levels of exposure.


Crippled: Unless referred to inanimate objects, crippled is deemed offensive. It’s commonly used for someone with a physical disability, but the word focuses on the deficit rather than the person.


Disadvantaged: It’s true that a person with disability lacks a certain functionality but they might not see themselves as disadvantaged. The ableist usage of this term, automatically puts anyone without a disability in an advantageous position, which need not be true.


Invalid: Just limited by a condition, doesn’t make the person invalid. It sounds hostile. In fact, recently researching for a government rule, I came across the term ‘invalid carriage’ for vehicles that are modified to be used by disabled drivers.


Lame: Used like crippled, for someone who has trouble walking. In urban usage, lame has become synonymous with weak, loser, uncool.


Mentally challenged: If the mental condition is not specified, the acceptable terms are mental illness/disability, intellectual disability or developmental disability.


Patient: If the person is not receiving any active treatment, he or she is not a patient. Their condition, visible or invisible maybe lifelong, but that doesn’t make them a patient at all times.


Retard: A derogatory term which is increasingly used in modern day slang, not restricted to disability.


Specially-abled: There is nothing special about a person with disability. Yes, as a person, he or she may have abilities that are special but that’s true for anyone. Unnecessary heroic references should be omitted.


Victim: There is a tendency to view disabled people as victims to bad karma in past life or suffering punishment from God, and hence the impairment. They are people, born with a medical condition that is part of their being as much as other traits of their personality.


Wheelchair-bound: The word ‘bound’ indicates confinement. On the contrary, wheelchair is an enabler, a mobility aid. So the person is technically a wheelchair user.


While using correct terminology is important, respect and equality emanate from empathy. If we can show compassion and be gracious in our interactions with persons with disabilities, we can organically arrive at our own understanding of what’s right or wrong, patronising or unassuming.