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On Changing Terminology: From “Dis/Abled” to “Disabled”

Language is constantly evolving within inclusion and diversity spaces; not only are some terms and phrases being identified as harmful or oppressive, but others are being reclaimed by people of certain identities. As such, it is the duty of organisations claiming to represent and support underrepresented and marginalised groups to keep up to date with the current discussions regarding language and to ensure that their use of terminology is reflective of best practice.

However, language relating to disability has continued to evolve and shift over the last decade. More recently, there has been a significant push by disabled people against the use of what is referred to as “positive language”; this refers to the use of terms such as “differently abled” or “specially abled” instead of “disabled”. Although well-meaning, these terms have been viewed by disabled people as being condescending and patronising, as it ultimately reinforces negative stereotypes of disability as being shameful or undesirable[1]. In addition, the use of euphemisms to describe disability can be an obstacle against inclusion, as it obscures the actual needs of disabled people in an ableist and non-inclusive world[2].

In academic circles, the use of terms such as “dis/ability” and “(dis)ability” have been popularised, mainly to emphasise “ability” against negative assumptions of disabled people (e.g., being seen as useless, helpless, incompetent, etc.). However, some disabled people have disagreed with the idea that “disability” as a word on its own is inherently negative and have moved to simply embrace the term as it is[3]. “Disabled” has also been recognised by the UK government as an acceptable and inclusive term to use when appropriate[4].

Of course, it should be recognised that the disability community is not a monolith and individual preferences will vary – for example, there is no universal agreement on whether “Person First” (“person with a disability”) or “Identity First” (“disabled person”) is best practice, as it ultimately depends on the individual’s feelings regarding their disability, which will vary across the community[5]. As such, much of the language being used may have to be chosen in consideration of a breadth of opinions and experiences. However, “disability” as a word on its own should not  be one that is viewed as inherently negative or something to be cautious about – instead, it should be embraced in a manner similar to that of the wider disability community, which recognises the complexity of the terminology and the ways in which it has evolved over time.

When Enabled Archaeology Foundation founder Theresa O’Mahony was originally developing the concept of “enabled archaeology”, much of the terminology that has since been broadly reclaimed by the disabled community was still viewed as stigmatising and overly negative. This informed much of the original EAF approach to language[6], which emphasised and uplifted the underappreciated abilities of disabled individuals within an ableist world through the use of terminology such as “dis/Ability” and “dis/Abled”. Today, however, much of the disabled community, including members of the EAF committee, have since reclaimed the word “disabled”; as such, the EAF has now moved to prefer the use of “disabled” over alternatives such as “dis/Abled” in recognition of this shift in language.

However, Theresa O’Mahony’s original conceptualisation of “enablement” within archaeology continues to be a powerful call to action for both disabled and non-disabled archaeologists. She has identified an “enabled archaeology” as one that allows individuals, both disabled and non-disabled, to become enabled to undertake archaeological work by providing the tools necessary to overcome barriers to inclusion; this can include the provision of equipment, sharing of knowledge and training, shifting of attitudes, or even just offering more opportunities to participate. With this in mind, the EAF will continue to champion the notion of an Enabled Archaeology despite other language shifts, as we believe that enablement for all archaeologists is a worthy goal to strive towards.

Ultimately, the Enabled Archaeology Foundation will continue to monitor the shifts in language use over time and adapt to changes in the way disabled individuals refer to themselves and their disabilities. At the same time, we will ensure that we honour Theresa O’Mahony’s original vision for an Enabled Archaeology and continue to champion enablement within our practises. We may sometimes get things wrong, and our decisions may not always be universally agreed upon. Regardless, we will continue to listen and learn from other members of the broader disabled community and will strive to grow and change through collective understandings and intercommunal conversations.

[1] Rakshit, D. (2021) Why Disability Activists Argue Against Labels Like ‘Differently Abled’. The Swaddle. Retrieved from

[2] Malhotra, N. (2019) First Person: Why I Don’t Want to Be Called ‘Differently Abled’. The Scroll. Retrieved from

[3] Wachsler, S. (2012) Languaging Disability: Where Do ‘Ability’ and ‘Dis/Ability’ Fit In? Ability Maine. Retrieved from‘Ability’-and-‘Dis%2FAbility’-Fit-In%3F%22

[4] UK Cabinet Office Disability Unit (2021) Inclusive Language: Words to Use and Avoid When Writing About Disability. Retrieved from

[5] Pulrang, A. (2020) Here Are Some Dos and Don’ts of Disability Language. Forbes. Retrieved from

[6] O’Mahony, T. (2018). Terminology Used in Enabled Archaeology.