We need new names – the disability version

The language we use reveals our attitudes, particularly when it comes to people with disability. Jerà feels that vernacular languages should evolve to reflect new sensitivities.

Disability - footballers
Disability – footballers

Zimbabwe has over 14 indigenous languages, all of which are unified by the refusal to evolve. The two main native dialects – Ndebele and Shona – as a rule can never be ‘corrupted.’

I recall how my O’level Shona teacher stood sentry over his beloved mother tongue: ‘Here we don’t mess with Nehanda’s language,’ he often said.

Language evolution

Most African languages hardly evolve, save for KiSwahili, which is as shape-shifting as the migratory mass of wildebeest in the Maasai Mara.

Disability – language has evolved

Globally, the language of disability has progressed to reflect the shift in attitudes. But in my home country, people with disabilities are still referred to in derogatory terms. We still hear the very same words that were probably in use before Nehanda had her first period.

Derogatory terms

In Shona, a person with Albinism is called ‘musope,’ meaning white. The Northern Ndebele word is equally retrogressive; ‘inkawu,’ which translates to ‘white monkey.’

Shona, for a person with an unspecified physical disability is ‘chirema,’ which is the same as saying ‘a cripple.’

Even the Disabled Persons Act, which was created to protect the rights of people with disabilities, is outdated – in the 21st century, nobody should be classified as ‘disabled.’

In keeping with ‘people first’ language, the globally accepted terminology is ‘people with disability.’ In Swahili, ‘mlemavu’ is slowly replacing oppressive words like ‘kilema’ (cripple).


To many people, they are just words. In fact, some of the biggest philanthropists who support persons with disability use these words, in the same sort way that an 18th century Mississippi plantation owner would have said ‘I treat my niggers well, I only whip them when necessary.’

Even if you mean well, your attitude is reflected in your speech.

South African deputy minister of social development, Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, who is legally blind, once said ‘you can build wheelchair ramps everywhere but, as long as attitudes do not change, it is pointless.’

In Shona, the prefix ‘chi’ in the word chirema implies a diminutive or worthless thing. In  Ndebele, the prefix ‘i’ in ‘isilima’ (cripple) is for things or creatures, not humans.

Sensitive language

People with disability are objectified, if not classified as worthless. This notion is rooted in history. Africa’s lifestyle was, and still is, rooted in manual labour – ploughing, hunting, gathering. Until colonisation, there were no mobility devices such as wheelchairs or guide dogs.

People with disabilities were therefore dependent on the goodwill of society.

In some cases, vernacular language has the incorrect notion that people with disability have their own race. In Shona, one with albinism is not called MuShona like all other Shonas. The prefix (mu) in the word musope suggests that albinism is a race.

Those who are cognisant of the importance of using language sometimes find themselves at a loss, when speaking in vernacular. Often, there is an uncomfortable pause in speech, before they seek shelter in the English language, which offers less demeaning words.

More than just words

Sometimes, newspapers seeking to sensationalise disability end up doing more harm than good. In a well-meaning article titled ‘Disability: A mother’s agony,’ award winning journalist, Roselyn Sachiti, writes that children with cerebral palsy ‘do not go to school and spend their life glued to wheelchairs.’ The article struck a nerve, so much that I can quote, verbatim, that unseemly phrase without looking it up.

I heard one newscaster prattling on about ‘people who live with Albinism.’ The phrase ‘living with disability’ infuriates and amuses me in equal measure. What does it mean; ‘living with albinism?’

It’s like albinism is a roommate who pays half the rent and takes turns cooking. Surely people with disabilities live with family or friends, maybe alone. But they certainly do not live with disability in the same way that stupid newsreaders do not live with stupidity.

Our vernacular languages pride themselves in remaining free of external influence. We struggle with names for gadgetry, such as computer or laptop – except for Swahili (ngamizwi and ngamizwi pakatwa respectively).

We have no words to identify wheelchair or Braille. The few English loan words which we begrudgingly adopted – chivhorovhoro (revolver) ifulayimachina (aeroplane) – sound silly. But in such instances, we at least made the effort to expand our languages. Why can we not make the same effort for disabilities?

Move with the times

Beyond the continent, language has evolved. In English, we now speak of ‘people first’ language, meaning we put humans before their disability. It is no longer acceptable to say ‘disabled person.’ Instead we say ‘person with a disability.’

The old way reduces a person to just their disability. Furthermore, it is stupid to call someone ‘disabled’ when that person is capable of doing so many things. A man with one arm can still read and write. The definition of ‘disable’ is to immobilize or render inoperative.

We need to formulate new language for people with disability. Once new phraseology is invented, change of attitudes will be a step closer.

My pen is capped.


This article first appeared on Waza


Jerà is a co-founder and editor of ilizwi263, a blogging platform hosting several bloggers. In 2018 Jerà was nominated for the National Arts Council of Zimbabwe merit award for online media. He is a winner of the Chaeli Campaign poetry prize and unrepentant fan of Arsenal FC and natural hair. Connect on Twitter @JeraZW

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