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What is in a name?

Negative and patronizing language produces negative and patronizing images. Words are important and teachers in particular must make sure that words do not offend or reinforce negative stereotypes.

Language can be used to shape ideas, perceptions and attitudes. Words that are in popular use reflect prevailing attitudes in society. Those attitudes are often the most difficult obstacles to change. However, positive and respectful attitudes can be shaped through careful use of words that objectively explain and inform without judgemental implications.


Words like impairment, disability and handicap are often used interchangeable. The World Health Organisation (WHO) carefully defines these three words (See box), but has in the meantime decided that these are no longer acceptable in terms of human rights and respect for difference and diversity. Disability is now seen as a complex collection of conditions, many of which are created by the social environment. Hence the management of the problem requires social action, and it is the collective responsibility of society at large to make the environmental modification necessary for the full participation of children and adults with disabilities in all areas of life. The issue is therefore an attitudinal or ideological one requiring social change, which at the political level becomes a question of human rights. Disability thus becomes a political issue.

  • Impairment: this word refers to an abnormality in the way organs or systems function. Impairment usually refers to a medical or organic condition, e.g. short-sightedness, heart problems, cerebral palsy or hearing problems.
  • Disability: this is the functional consequence of an impairment. A child with spina bifida who, because of this impairment cannot walk without the assistance of callipers and crutches, has a disability. However, a person with short-sightedness who is provided with correcting glasses may see very well and thus has an impairment but no disability.
  • Handicap: this is the social or environmental consequence of a disability. Many people with a disability do in principle not feel handicapped. Society often makes them handicapped by creating barriers of rejection, discrimination, prejudice and physical access, preventing them from making choices and decisions that affect their lives. E.g. if a child who uses a wheelchair cannot enter the community school, (s)he will have a handicap in making use of the school. When the school is made accessible for users of wheelchairs, this handicap disappears. Handicaps do often reveal the (lack of) flexibility, resources and attitudes of a community in which the person is living.

When talking about persons with a disability people often use words or labels that imply a negative judgement. People say that persons are disabled, are deaf or are mentally retarded as if that is their only characteristic. Persons are not impaired, disabled or handicapped, but they may have an impairment, disability or handicap as one of their many other characteristics. Talking about “the handicapped”, “the disabled”, “the deaf” is rather insulting and hurtful to a person’s dignity. It devalues individual people and labels them in one big group perceived as being the same or similar, reinforcing stereotyping. Such labels focus primarily on the disability and not on the person. “Mental retardation” is another negative label, which hurts the person in question as well as his/her family members. It is preferred to use the term “intellectual disability” instead of mental retardation.


New terminology like PWDs (Persons With Disability), CWDs (Children with Disability), PALs (Persons Affected by Leprosy) is as demeaning as earlier used labels. Real people should not be made into acronyms. We are not using acronyms for any group of people and should not do so for people with a disability.
It is important to realize that diversity among people is normal and that within the different categories of disabilities people differ as much from each other as within other groups of people. A teacher may have two children with visual impairments in his/her classroom that require very different teaching approaches due to such normal diversity among people with and without disabilities.


Education and learners with impairments/disabilities:
Mainstreaming, integration and inclusion are descriptions of situations where children with impairments/disabilities are allowed to learn together with their peers without impairments/disabilities provided they can adjust to the mainstream system and requirements (mainstreaming/integration). Only ‘inclusion’ reflects on the human rights and social justice issue of educational exclusion, for example as a result of inflexible policies and practices in the mainstream education system. 

  • Mainstreaming is allowing children with disabilities to be placed in regular schools, but only if they can follow the mainstream curriculum academically without problems and without the teacher having to make curriculum adaptations. Mainstreaming mostly occurs for children suffering from illnesses that have no impact on cognitive abilities such as epilepsy or asthma and for children with a sensory impairment (having the necessary assistive devices such as hearing aids or Braille books) and those who only have a physical impairment. Mainstreaming does not require teachers to adapt the curriculum or change their teaching methods.
  • Integration means placing students with (whatever) impairments in classrooms with their peers without disabilities. Integration implies that you think about in what school or classroom a child would be placed if (s)he would not have a disability. It often happens in integrated schools/classrooms that children only follow the lessons that they can follow according to the teacher, and for many academic subjects these children may receive alternative lessons or remedial teaching in a separate classroom – segregated from their peers. Integrated placement is not synonym to instructional and social integration, because this very much depends on the support that is given in school (and the wider community).
  • Inclusion is a social and educational philosophy. Those who believe in inclusion also believe that all people are valuable members of mainstream society, whatever their difference or diversity. In education this means that all children, irrespective of their abilities or disabilities, socio-economic background, ethnic, language or cultural background, religion or gender go together to the same community school.
  • The inclusive philosophy is about belonging to, contributing to a (school) community and about being respected. The opposite is exclusion which conveys a sense of rejection, inferiority and powerlessness, and often leads to frustration and resentment. Inclusion and inclusive education do not look at whether children are able to follow the mainstream education programme, but looks at teachers and schools that can adapt educational programmes to individual needs.