Disability History Month: Disability and Language

Disability History Month: Disability and Language
The more you find out about the history of disability and the associated language used, the more eye-opening it becomes.
It wasn’t so long ago that ‘special’ was widely used – a patronising euphemism now best avoided – and we are still left with the remains of so many other words that cast disabilities and impairments in a negative light.

Some examples from the UK Disability History Month (UKDHM) Broadsheet include:

Cripple The word comes from Old English crypel or creopel, both related to the verb ‘to creep’. These come from old (Middle) German ‘kripple’ meaning to be without power. The word is extremely offensive. Use disabled person.

Mental, nutter, mad or crazy  Informal (slang)  words for people with mental health issues. One in four people have a major bout of mental distress or become mental health system users. The vast majority are not dangerous. Offensive.  Use mental health system user or survivor.

Moron(ic) Greek, meaning ‘foolish, dull, sluggish’. Offensive. Use person with learning difficulties.

Click here for the Broadsheet containing further words and information.

These words and many others have long been embedded in our language and it is important that we keep dismantling such views and terms today.


This timeline gives some history of the language that has been used to describe to disability:

1592 Shakespeare writes the play Richard III

In Scene I, Act I, Gloucester makes a now famous speech about the impacts of impairment on character.

“[…] I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover.
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous, […]”

In this play evil and disability are linked. At a time when people generally believed in witchcraft and tangible forces of evil, the play would have had particular impact.

Throughout history, human physical and mental differences have been described in language and meaning which is based on the thinking of the day, reinforcing powerful stereotypes, which stretch down the years and still influence thinking about disabled people.

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1865 Darwin publishes The Origin of Species.

Darwin’s cousin Frances Galton and many others thought they could speed up natural selection of human beings by stopping ‘inferior’ people from having children. This Eugenics movement particularly focused on those they called ‘feeble-minded’, who could pass as part of the general population, but who carried the characteristics of mental deficiency, crime, immorality and destitution, which could be passed onto to their children. Most people with more significant mental impairments or labels – the mad’, ‘idiots’ and ‘imbeciles’  were already kept in asylums and the workhouse, with upper and middle class people in private small asylums.

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1902 National Institutions for Persons Requiring Care and Control founded.

The Rev. Harold Nelson Burden, chaplain at Horfield Prison, and Katharine, his wife, founded the National Institutions for Persons Requiring Care and Control to care for ‘mentally retarded’ children and adults.

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1909 The Burden’s open Stoke Park Colony in April.

This was the first institution certified as a home for ‘mentally retarded’ patients. The agitation and false thinking of Eugenicists Galton, Dendy, Burden, Ida Darwin and a small group of other such activists led to a Royal Commission on Mental Deficiency. This was provided with false scientific evidence by psychologists like Cyril Burt and doctors like A. F. Tredgold, who provided the authoritative text on ‘mental deficiency’ for the next sixty years.

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1913 The Mental Deficiency Act voted through Parliament with only 2 votes against.

This led to the licensing and shutting away for life of 130,000 people, a growth in diagnosis and labelling, and the setting up of over 100 large institutions. Many of these only began to close in the 1980s to 2000s, and many of the children’s facilities just changed their name to special school.

The Act established the Board of Control for Lunacy and Mental Deficiency to oversee the implementation of provisions for the care and management of four classes of people,

“a) Idiots. Those so deeply defective as to be unable to guard themselves against common physical dangers.

b) Imbeciles. Whose defectiveness does not amount to idiocy, but is so pronounced that they are incapable of managing themselves or their affairs, or in the case of children, of being taught to do so.

c) Feeble-minded persons. Whose weakness does not amount to imbecility, yet who require care, supervision, or control, for their protection or for the protection of others, or, in the case of children, are incapable of receiving benefit from the instruction in ordinary schools. 

d) Moral Imbeciles. Displaying mental weakness coupled with strong vicious or criminal propensities, and on whom punishment has little or no deterrent effect.”

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Fast forward almost 100 years:

2006 The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

Over 5 years the United Nation (UN) constructed a legally enforceable human rights treaty, challenging widespread prejudice and discrimination against disabled people and ensuring they have the same access to universal human rights as non-disabled people. Unique among treaties was the involvement of disabled individuals and their representative organisations worldwide.

The convention holds out the promise of finally dismantling disabilism, but needs to be implemented!


For some history of disability more generally, this is a really interesting video:


The history of disability and the treatment of disabled people can be sobering, but is so important. The rest of the UKDHM Broadsheet is really worth a read as it discusses language and support for those who are so often excluded from various types of conversation – D/deaf people, blind people and deafblind people. There is also discussion of ‘who is normal?’ and the use of terms ‘disabled people’ and ‘people with disabilities’.

If you would like to get involved UK Disability History Month, running from 22nd November to 22nd December 2016, check out their website for more information.

ukdhm UK Disability History Month

This post was written by Holly Newson.

Picture credit: UKDHMColin/Wikimedia Commons

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