DOI: https://doi.org/10.20529/IJME.2013.020

The ethics of disability language

There has been a gradual evolution of terminology commonly used in health-related or disability-related contexts. Not so long ago, we used the term “normal” thoughtlessly. Looking deeper, what is normal? Two people under the same circumstances behave differently. Who then decides what is “normal”?

When we come to the translation of terms, we encounter greater confusion. The emotions associated with words and terms differ based on experiences. The term “normal” which means “average” is usually translated as either “sadharan” or “samanya” in many Indian languages. “Sadharan” is closer in meaning to the English word “common”. “Samanya” is probably closer to “normal” or average”. But in common parlance, “sadharan” is the more popular usage (1).

Language and cultural behaviour have an interdependent relationship. While a cultural context gives rise to language, language in turn, can influence social behaviour. This underscores the importance of using language ethically (2).

When we term someone handicapped ; and look at the translated terms “vikalaang” is it the same thing? The word handicap is used in horse racing. The term denoted “equal playing field”. The faster horses were weighted down in order to slow them down so that the slower horses would have a better chance. The word “vikalaang”, used synonymously with handicapped, has a different etymology. “Vikalaang” means “imperfect limb” which essentially means “deformed” and not “impediment”.The reason for this is that “handicap” in its original meaning has no relevance to India. “Vikalaang” on the other hand has reference in the ancient texts and folklore (3).

Now we come to the newer term “disability” which is of fairly simple origin as it is just the opposite of “able”. The connotation here is that the disabled person is somehow “not able”. This word has no popular equivalent in Indian languages. So while English has changed the word three times already, we have no equivalence. The word asamarth is equivalent to “disabled” but somehow this word has not taken root in popular usage. So we continue to equate disability with “crooked limbs”. Could this perhaps be the reason why invisible disabilities like mental illness or autism are not part of the public consciousness?

Currently, the popularly used term in English is not “disabled” but “differently abled”, although “disability” is still used in scientific parlance. This came about from the realisation that “dis” connotes “inability” which means there is a notion of “normal”. “Differently abled” connotes people having different abilities. But doesn’t everyone? So are we continuing to label people? Over time will this new term also become pejorative?

What about the translation of “differently abled” into Indian languages? Though the officially adopted terms is “vikalachetan”, it has no linguistic or semantic equivalence to the word “differently abled” which, in English, is arguably “positive”. “Vikalachetan” means “imperfect abilities”. So it is no different from “imperfect limb”. Why then, do we go through this exercise of coining new terms? Is labelling avoidable? Is labelling, whatever the label may be, ethical? How about “vibhinnachethana” (differently abled)? Could the expresson, if adopted, become part of the popular parlance? Would it perhaps encourage us over time to view “disability” as “normal”. After all, what is “normal”? How many people must have a certain condition for it to be “normal” or “typical”? India, by sheer numbers, is set to become the capital of many conditions. So eventually will all of them be part of the mainstream?

Kavitha Raja, Professor, Department of Physiotherapy, Manipal College of Allied Health Sciences, Manipal University, Manipal 576 104 Karnataka INDIA e-mail: kavitha.raja@manipal.edu


  1. Pathak, RC. Bhargava’s concise dictionary of the English language (Anglo-Hindi Ed.) Varanasi: Bhargava Book Depot; 1966.
  2. Krauss MR, Chiu C. Language and social behaviour. In: Gilbert TD, editor. The handbook of social psychology,4th ed. Boston:McGraw-Hill; 1998.
  3. Karna GN. United Nations and the rights of disabled persons: a study in Indian perspective. New Delhi: APH Publishing Corporation; 1999.
About the Authors

Kavitha Raja (kavitha.raja@manipal.edu)

Professor, Department of Physiotherapy

Manipal College of Allied Health Sciences, Manipal University, Manipal 576 104 Karnataka, India




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