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Universal language vs. legal language – a common language with an aim to overcome barriers

1. Language as a tool

Depending on how it is used, language may be a powerful tool that can remove barriers between people and build bridges of understanding or become a cog in the machine of exclusion defining people by the functioning difficulties they experience.  The world is constructed in such a way that good intentions are not always sufficient.  Language has to be used consciously, i.e. one needs to know how certain statements may be perceived by one’s interlocutors.  It is not just the vocabulary that provides information about the value system, but above all the meaning attached to it1.

2. Language evolution or newspeak?

Nowadays, it is accepted that language adapts to the needs of the community that uses it2.  For this reason, common (general) language is dynamic and over the course of time some terms become replaced by others. With the development of the idea of an inclusive society, we have seen a change in the discourse related to disability and, consequently, greater attention devoted to the language used to refer to this phenomenon.  ‘The language of disability’ is not newspeak, but the externalisation of the process which, since the second half of the 20th century, has led to the emancipation of this social group at the linguistic level. It resulted, among others, in the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by the General Assembly of the United Nations. The convention formally articulates the vision of self-representation of persons with disabilities as free, equal and, above all, having the dignity inherent in every human being.3

How has the language changed in the recent years? The beginnings of this process can be traced back to the end of the 20th century when the expression ‘disabled person’ replaced expressions associated with a high level of negative connotations, such as ‘a cripple’, ‘the handicapped’, ‘the blind’, and marginalised the expressions ‘special needs child’ and ‘differently abled’4.

The fundamental element of the term ‘disabled person’ is the word ‘person’ which appears next to the word indicating impairment and signifies that this is not just a case requiring the intervention of specialists but, above all, a human being. This expression, although the cornerstone of the changes, proved to be insufficient relatively quickly. As early as in 2013 D. Galasiński aptly observed that the phrase focused on and highlighted only one personality trait, which in itself was stigmatising. This author explained that the prepositional phrase ‘person with a disability’ which had already been present in the language, in particular that of activists fighting for full inclusion, would be a better option, as it conveyed the message that the person to whom the term referred had many characteristics and qualities5. “‘A person with a disability’ resembles a person with a mole, or perhaps a briefcase, or a dog”6.

In addition to the above, it is worth emphasising that the term ‘disabled person’, which defines a given person in a closed way, was also criticised in the language guide prepared by the University of Warsaw. Just like many other such publications7, this guide considers the expression ‘person with a disability’ to be appropriate.

In 2013, however, the aforementioned D. Gałasiński pointed out the fact that at that time the term had not been used in the common language or in the legal language, i.e. the language used by the legislator drafting legal provisions, e.g. laws. It should be noted that the enrooting of a given term in legal regulations, as well as political declarations, brings about a rapid change of linguistic habits as it is an expression of the normative decision on what to call certain social issues and, consequently, how to speak and write about them. On the other hand, the very use of such terms in the legal language is an effect of axiological changes in the assessment of these social issues.

For the purpose of this study, the authors decided to analyse the available material in order to determine whether changes in the ‘language of disability’ had become part of the legal language. It was established that the term ‘disabled person’ had been used, among others, in the Act on Vocational and Social Rehabilitation and Employment of Persons with Disabilities of 27 August 1997, the Law on Higher Education and Science of 20 July 2018 and the Act on the Solidarity Fund of 23 October 2018. The concepts referring to disability as one of human characteristics can be found, among others, in Resolution no. 27 of the Council of Ministers of 16 February 2021 on the adoption of the Strategy for Persons with Disabilities 2021-2030, the Act of 14 December 2016 - Regulations introducing the Education Law and the Regulation of the Minister of National Education of 14 February 2017.8

The authors share the view that the term ‘person with a disability’ is currently the best option to be used in both the common and legal or formal language. The form was also approved by Marek Łaziński, PhD, in his opinion prepared for the Polish Language Council9. The opinion provides that the term ‘person with a disability’ will not only be used increasingly more often, but, above all, it offers a grammatical pattern of destigmatisation by moving away from the noun (invalid) towards the adjective (disabled), and finally to the prepositional phrase (person with a disability).  The unquestionable value of this expression lies in the fact that it brings together many groups and ways of perceiving them under one umbrella. It responds to the postulate of treating disability as one of many features without undermining the feelings of people for whom disability is a dominant or proud element of identity. They may choose such expressions as disabled, a dwarf or Deaf, challenging the negative emotional charge inherent in those words and use them as reclaimed terms (just like the word queer) to question the ableist understanding of independence, subjectivity and normality.10

3. Conclusion

Although it does not necessarily affect everyone at the same time, language evolution is a sign of social change which should not be treated as newspeak. The terms used so far are becoming insufficient for some members of society not only to describe the world but, above all, to define their own self. It is difficult to talk about right or wrong here because these considerations are related to axiological issues, and as such they cannot be captured in the narrow frame of formalistic assessments. However, once you are aware of how these notions may be perceived, you should decide for yourself whether to use them or not, thus avoiding randomness and consciously naming what needs to be named.


1 A.B. Ciborowska [in: ] Polszczyzna XX wieku. Ewolucja i perspektywy rozwoju, co-ed. S. Dubisz, S. Gajda, Warszawa 2001, p. 276.

2 I. Bajerowa, Wpływ techniki na ewolucję języka polskiego, Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich, 1980, p. 60.

3 The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 13 December 2006. It was approved by the EU on 23 December 2010 and ratified by Poland on 6 September 2012.

4 These terms soon became devalued as they emphasised the special nature of the world of people with disabilities  and lent themselves easily to derisive transformations (Pol. ‘myślący inaczej’ – differently abled in terms of intelligence, Pol. ‘pracujący inaczej’ – differently abled in terms of working skills).

5 Cf.: A. Bieganowska-Skóra, Savoir-vivre wobec osób z niepełnosprawnościami, Lublin, p. 5; access:, 11.02.2022; K. Bierzanowska, access:,  8.02.2022

6 Galasiński, D., Osoby niepełnosprawne, czy z niepełnosprawnością w. Niepełnosprawność – zagadnienia, problemy, rozwiązania. Nr IV/2013 (9), p. 3-6.  


8 Regulation on the core curriculum for pre-school education and the core curriculum for general education at the elementary level, including for pupils with moderate and severe intellectual disabilities, general education in lower secondary vocational schools, general education in vocational schools for students with special needs and general education in post-secondary schools.


10 Taylor, S., Beasts of Burden: Animal Disability and Liberation, NEW PR, 7 March 2017, p. 33.

Reference literature

Wróblewski B., Język prawny i prawniczy, Kraków 1948

Ciborowska A.B. [in: ] Polszczyzna XX wieku. Ewolucja i perspektywy rozwoju, co-ed. S. Dubisz, S. Gajda, Warszawa 2001

Bajerowa I, Wpływ techniki na ewolucję języka polskiego, Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich, 1980

Taylor, S., Beasts of Burden: Animal Disability and Liberation, NEW PR, 7 March 2017

Bieganowska-Skóra A., Savoir-vivre wobec osób z niepełnosprawnościami, Lublin 2021 ,

Bierzanowska K., O niepełnosprawności: definicje, Studia de Cultura 2018, nr 10(1)

Galasiński, D., Osoby niepełnosprawne, czy z niepełnosprawnością w. Niepełnosprawność – zagadnienia, problemy, rozwiązania,  2013, nr IV (9)

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About the authors

Małgorzata Perdeus-Białek – coach, educator, disability specialist, long-term employee of the Jagiellonian University Disability Support Service.

Agata Cebera – legal advisor, Doctor of Law and assistant professor at the Chair of Administrative Procedure of the Jagiellonian University Faculty of Law and Administration