Report: ‘Handicapped’: Use of outdated terminology in Social Security law and policy

Lucia MaiDisability


Language relating to disability generally, and to people with disability, has significantly changed since the introduction of the Social Security Act 1991 (Cth). This has occurred due to a shift in society’s understanding of the impact that the use of certain terms has on people with disability.

People with Disability Australia (PWDA) has developed a Language Guide (Guide) to assist in talking about and reporting on disability. PWDA says that:

The choices people make about language have an impact on the way people with disability feel and are perceived in society. It is important that there is awareness of the meaning behind the words that are used when talking to, referring to, or working with people with disability. Disrespectful language can make people with disability feel hurt and excluded, and be a barrier to full participation in society.

People with disability are often described in ways that are disempowering, discriminatory, degrading and offensive. Negative words such as ‘victim’ or ‘sufferer’ reinforce stereotypes that people with disability are unhappy about our lives, wish we were ‘normal’, and should be viewed as objects of pity.

These harmful stereotypes are simply not true. People with disability are people first – people who have families, who work, and who participate in our communities. People with disability want our lives to be respected and affirmed. In addition, many people with disability are proud of being
disabled, and want that identity respected.((

Regrettably, outdated and arguably offensive language such as ‘handicapped’ continues to be used in social security law.

Read the full report here.