As people with disabilities become more active in our communities, we move slowly towards equality. We are out in the world living, working, traveling, getting married, raising kids, and doing everything else non-disabled people can do. People view us differently than they once did, and so the words used to speak about us have changed. Words such as “invalid” and “retarded,” once everyday descriptors, are now considered offensive and unacceptable in modern society. However, there are still a few problem phrases that linger, and really need to go away. They fall into the gray area: they are not outright insults, but they evoke pity or limitations. One of the most persistent and harmful is “wheelchair bound.”
There are so many problems with the term “wheelchair bound,” it’s hard to know where to begin. For starters, it seems to imply something involving handcuffs — and hey, whatever floats your boat, but I don’t think that’s what most people mean when they say it. “Wheelchair bound” suggests that the person is literally physically tied to their wheelchair, as if they never get out of it for any reason. The similar and equally problematic term “confined to a wheelchair” does the same thing.
In reality, people who use wheelchairs may sometimes get out of them for a multitude of reasons — to reach something, sit in a restaurant booth, get into the driver’s seat of their car, and more. Many people who use wheelchairs can walk to some extent, but it’s just too slow, painful, or exhausting to travel long distances. Even people like myself who can’t walk at all still get out of our wheelchairs to bathe, sleep, etc. We are not bound to our wheelchairs in any way.
A wheelchair is not confining. It is a mobility device — it gives me something, and takes nothing away. I can go just about anywhere in my wheelchair, from the grocery store to the theater to the Grand Canyon. Without my wheelchair, I would be bound and confined. With it, I am free.
Although “wheelchair bound” and “confined to a wheelchair” are still in very common usage, we all have the power to remove them from our vocabulary. They are easily replaced. Instead, of saying “Karin is wheelchair-bound,” you can say “Karin uses a wheelchair.” “Uses a wheelchair” is a simple, factual, description. It attaches absolutely no judgments, positive or negative; it simply describes someone’s form of mobility.
People without disabilities often wonder if or when it’s OK to use someone’s condition or diagnosis as a descriptor. Using a person’s specific disability to describe them to a stranger may or may not be appropriate, depending on the situation and their individual preferences. Some people prefer to keep their medical diagnosis private and only disclose it to family and close friends. Certain conditions may carry a stigma, and we must honor others’ choices about what to tell whom. If you’re not sure, it’s better to give less information and let the person with the disability fill in the blanks later. Personally, I don’t mind if someone says that I have cerebral palsy, but please don’t say I suffer from it. That’s attaching a value judgment that doesn’t apply to me or to many people with a variety of disabilities.
Most people who have disabilities are not ashamed to use the word disabled to describe ourselves. Disabled is not a four-letter word! Terms like “differently abled” or “handicapable” are cloying euphemisms, and are best avoided unless you know that the specific person you’re describing likes them. Just call us what we are.
For people who are well-meaning but don’t know much about the disability community, understanding appropriate language can seem like a minefield. Language has shifted very quickly over the last few generations, and what our parents told us was OK to say may no longer be acceptable. The media doesn’t help, often using harmful terms like “wheelchair bound” even though the Associated Press and the National Center on Disability and Journalism have both released style guides specifically saying not to do so. Journalists and copy editors need to become more informed about language surrounding disability, just as they have for people of color and the LGBT community.
Unfortunately, sometimes people with disabilities ourselves use harmful terminology. As an editor for a major disability website, I’ve lost count of how many times people write to us saying “I am wheelchair bound.” No, you’re not wheelchair bound. You use a wheelchair; you choose to let it bind you. I generally respect people’s right to self-identify as they wish, but saying things like “I suffer from Condition X,” or “My daughter is confined to a wheelchair” hurt the person saying them, their loved ones and the larger disability community. I realize many people use these phrases without really thinking about them, but we need to work on our own attitudes as a community, as well as advocating for societal change.
That said, it’s important to distinguish harmful language from reclaiming language. Sometimes people with disabilities call themselves “crips” or “gimps” as a way of reclaiming those terms, similar to how the LGBT community might use “dyke.” It’s OK for people who are part of the community to use those words to self-identify, but those outside of it should not do so.
I know this might be confusing. But before you throw in the towel and say “Screw it, I’m not going to bother trying to be ‘politically correct,'” keep in mind that getting most of it right most of the time is actually fairly easy. All you have to do is think about how a particular phrase describes disability. Does it make having a disability sound like a limited or tragic way of being? Is it a word you might use to insult someone? If so, it’s probably inappropriate. Does the phrase describe disability in a neutral way, or positive but without being condescending? Then it’s probably OK.
All humans deserve to be seen as unique and not judged by an often-stereotyped surface characteristic. Although we can’t change everyone’s attitudes, we can change our own, and that starts with the words we use to describe ourselves and people who are different from us. When we take phrases like “wheelchair bound” out of our vocabulary, we unbind ourselves to start seeing people with disabilities as people. And that makes all of us more free.