As colleges engage in antiracist, equity-minded, inclusive practices, they must be thoughtful and intentional about using language to avoid labeling, discrimination, and archaic terms that marginalize and disenfranchise communities. Colleges should be honoring the voices of their diverse student and employee populations by shifting to anti-discriminatory language in the same way they seek to be antiracist. In serving students, institutions should consider who may not be using resources of support, perhaps because of outdated language and practices that are not welcoming and often create barriers to student success. Everyone should strive for equity and creating an environment that cultivates a culture that is anti-ableist. Students do not want to feel welcomed; they want to actually be welcomed. They should not have to fight for every accommodation and find ways around every barrier; instead, they should not be forced to face barriers at all.
This culture shift begins with acknowledging historical harm: For decades, community colleges have used the term “disabled students.” The term is written into regulation and is used in the name of many college centers and programs. Colleges might wish to rethink and, with a spirit of inquiry, consider the history and the evolution of the language.
In the 1960s, with the birth of the modern disability rights movement that followed the civil rights movement, advocates started to bring about change to policy in the United States (Disability Rights, 2020).A community of people fighting for more independence and self-determination rejected the term “handicapped” in favor of “disabled” (Cluley, 2018). This change may seem counterintuitive, since, at first glance, handicapped looks like the more enlightened choice; however, it replaced other terms that had accumulated centuries’ worth of terrible connotations.
Today, disabled might appear to be one of those terrible terms. Its etymological form means lacking in “power, strength, or ability” (Disability, 2022), which is not a very liberating sentiment, and it has a history of being used to describe people with disabilities going back 200 years before handicapped became widely used. However, for activists looking for a way to refer to new campaigns and organizations, disability seemed the better choice, and disabled at that time was attractive for its rather more clinical connotation, meaning that it lacked euphemism or a patronizing attitude, concerns that were also problematic for terms like “special” or “differently-abled.” The main concern with handicapped was simply that it had not been chosen by the people it was supposed to describe. As journalist and disability scholar Jack A. Nelson wrote, though handicapped appeared to be “in keeping with the disability rights movement’s analysis of the situation—that the individual is okay but society has put him or her at a disadvantage—the term was nonetheless rejected when disabled people began wresting the power of the programs that controlled their lives from social workers and began to run their own programs…if for no other reason that it was a term imposed on them by agencies” (Okrent, 2015). By the time the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, the term handicapped had already become archaic and awkward. Activists who had fought for the act and decided for themselves what language to use ushered the term off the stage as the century drew to a close.
As community colleges work to be more inclusive, they must embrace everyone’s full humanity and be open to evolving as educators. The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office has recently adjusted from DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) to a newly adopted acronym, DEIA, meaning diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. In discussing any acronym or any shift in language, the terms must be clearly defined so as not to be a fad or checklist or surface level but rather a clear and deep understanding of community, culture, and inclusivity. Depending upon the context, accessibility is a better term, though people-first language is the most widely accepted language for referring to persons with disabilities. It is also the language used in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. People-first language emphasizes the person, not the disability, by placing a reference to the person or group before the reference to the disability. For example, one can use expressions such as “children with albinism,” “students with dyslexia,” “women with intellectual disabilities” and, of course, “persons with disabilities” (United Nations, 2019).
Research has shown that using terms like disabled and disabilities creates a barrier for many students using or seeking to use services on college campuses. For example, Student Accessibility Director Sandra Harrison posited, “When our name was DSO we found that some students didn’t want to register or be affiliated with us because they didn’t want to have that term describe them . . . I think the former name could lend itself to [misunderstanding] that the person with the disability is the issue . . . it’s the university’s responsibility to be accessible . . . We had already been moving toward more of a social model as opposed to an only medical model, using accessibility over disability” (Telch, 2017). In an ableist society, people often think of disability in a deficit mindset, but in an inclusive social model, one should be thinking of disability in a neutral way and in a mindset that honors and embraces the beauty of diversity and inclusivity.
Recommendations and Models of Inclusion
People often want to hold on to the historical credence of terms without realizing those terms are steeped in colonized, racialized, and discriminatory practices. Acknowledging the intersections of identity fully recognizes the value of the whole human being and the barriers to access created by inequitable structures and factors (Cogburn, 2019).
As colleges assess their processes and language, they need to make changes to support accessibility and inclusion by doing the following:
- Ensure that all programs, services, and processes are current and inclusive. Colleges that have outdated language should challenge those terms in every document and policy.
- Bring students to the table and amplify their voices to inform decisions to affect change.
- Engage in rebranding spaces, documents, and policies, and make the investment in the resources that such work may require. Valuing such rebranding shows the intent and priority of the college.
- Consider supporting and using a webpage or Canvas page to regularly update language. Example websites can be found here:https://sites.google.com/brandeis.edu/parcsuggestedlanguagelist/categories/cultural-appropriative-language?authuser=0; https://adata.org/factsheet/ADANN-writing.
- Use the position and the power of the local academic senate to call for intentionality and accountability in making changes.
All institutions should be more inclusive, meaningful, and intentional in progressing and evolving language and culture. More inclusive language creates a solid foundation for the structural support that is needed for change, but it also offers an opportunity to support and engage in advocacy at statewide levels and with higher education partnerships to affect change and transformation to support students who transfer (Montez et al., 2017). Faculty and colleges throughout the state should call for systemic change and elimination of barriers across systems and, most importantly, ask their students and their communities what they need.
Cluley, V. (2018). From “Learning disability to intellectual disability”—Perceptions of the increasing use of the term “intellectual disability” in learning disability policy, research and practice. British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 46(1), 24–32.https://doi-org.riohondo.idm.oclc.org/10.1111/bld.12209.
Cogburn, Courtney D. (2019). “Culture, Race, and Health: Implications for racial inequities and population health.” The Milbank Quarterly 97, no. 3: 736–61. http://www.jstor.org/stable/45218864.
Disability. (2022). Online Etymological Dictionary. Douglas Harper. https://www.etymonline.com/word/disability#:~:text=disability%20(n.),Related%3A%20Disabilities.
Disability Rights. (2018). Gale Opposing Viewpoints Online Collection. Gale. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/HPGYQI733483980/OVIC?u=cclc_rio&sid=bookmark-OVIC&xid=8102ec75.
Montez, J.K, Zajacova, A, & Hayward, M.D. (2017): “Disparities in disability by educational attainment across US states.” American Journal of Public Health. vol. 107,7 1101-1108. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2017.303768.
Okrent, A. (2015). Why did “disabled” replace “handicapped” as the preferred term? Mental Floss.https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/69361/why-did-disabled-replace-handicapped-preferred-term.
Telch, S. (2017). DSO changes name to office of student accessibility. Graphic. Pepperdine University. https://pepperdine-graphic.com/dso-changes-name-to-office-of-student-accessibility/.
United Nations. (2019). Disability inclusive language guidelines.https://www.ungeneva.org/sites/default/files/2021-01/Disability-Inclusive-Language-Guidelines.pdf.