Words can hurt

by Emma Major and Laura Neale


Today Laura and I want to talk about language, thinking about the way that words can hurt, especially those related to disability.

A picture with the words "Words Can Hurt" over gold and purple paint - artwork by Emma Major

The language of disability has changed beyond recognition over the last few decades and, as all language, is constantly evolving. I am often asked, “what words should we use to describe "disabled people"?” and the answer is simple - there is no one answer, because we are all individuals and have our own preferences. The best thing to do is to ask the person, or group of people you are referring to, being open about the fact that you don't mean to offend and be okay with being told if you get it wrong.


Why is this important?


The language around disability can exclude or include, offend or affirm; it can communicate assumptions or inadvertently raise concern about someone's judgement.


Let me share some examples which are sadly still used today and which cause upset and can be hugely offensive. Words such as "handicapped" and "retard" have been used to control and oppress us and should never be used! "Stuck in a wheelchair" or “wheelchair bound” are a complete misunderstanding - my wheels are my freedom.


"Person with a disability" or "differently abled" make my eyes roll, yet I know other people are happy with these terms. My autistic friends prefer to be referred to as “autistic friends” rather than “friends with autism”. I prefer to use the identity first terms of "disabled minister" or "blind woman" because they highlight my access needs in a world that is highly inaccessible, but again, if you're not sure then ask.


We could write about language and disability for thousands of words but there's not enough space here for that. Instead, we want to highlight one particular phrase used about online and hybrid church, which is causing disabled and vulnerable people, who worship online, to feel excluded. That phrase is, "in person".


So many churches are saying that those in the building are "in person" and those joining online are "online". Church in a building is no more church "in person" than online church is.


I am still a person, in my body when I join church online; we're all in person, but some of us are online and some are on-site.

In the same stream, please avoid using the word “virtual” when speaking about a live streamed or Zoom service and church events as the word “virtual” means “not physically existing” (i.e. not real) and this is never true unless you are hosting your meetings via VR or through the use of avatars.