Stop Calling People “Impaired”

Ather Sharif
3 min readJun 12, 2022
Close-up image of a damaged green threaded jumbo bag with almost half of the threads damaged

Google “impair,” and we get: “weaken or damage something (especially a human faculty or function).” I am not advocating for removing emotionally-destructive barbarous words from the vocabulary entirely, but really, summon every ounce of ethics and morality within yourself and ask — is this how we want to describe people? The “damaged” ones?

As a person with a disability, every time I hear terms like “visually impaired,” “hearing impaired,” or “motor impaired,” I am reminded of how much this society still operates under the dichotomy of people who are “normal” and those who are “broken.” The word… just… hits you, you know? Like yeah, you’re one of those people. The “unfortunate” ones. The ones historically excluded from being fully part of our society.

The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) deplored using the term “visually impaired” to describe blind and low-vision folks in their 1993’s convention resolution. That was 29 years ago. The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) mentions “hearing impaired” as an unacceptable term in their FAQ section. And yet these terms continue to be prevalent in academic publications, even those published at top-tier venues. And in the mission statements of organizations. And basically, everywhere.

The disability community has been speaking up. But are we listening?

Yes, there was a time when WHO, in 1980, deemed this term as the politically correct term to refer to disabled people, after finally recognizing “retarded” and “mental” as being offensive and inappropriate. But it’s not 1980 anymore; it’s 2022. Societies evolve. Terms transform. Minds change. And it’s about damn time that we listen to the disability community and stop calling them “impaired.”

But everyone still uses it!

Just because these terms are (still) widely used in academic publications and blog posts neither justify their usage nor constitute a standard that we all should follow. Societies and systems have a sluggish tendency to follow traditions and practices as checklist items without paying much attention to the long-term side effects and consequences. And this is why we disrupt systems and introduce discomfort so people can learn and use the appropriate terminologies. Temporary discomfort that leads to long-term…

Ather Sharif

PhD student @uwcse Accessibility, Visualization, Personalization | SWE Lead @comcast | Founder @evoxlabs | React developer | 🐱 dad | 🍩 eater | 🦅 🔔 #philly ❤