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Differently abled is a euphemistic term for someone who might formerly have been classed as disabled, handicapped, challenged, or having special needs. It can apply to people with predominantly physical or mental challenges. The description is thought to be more politically correct in some circles because it recognizes that even if people have mental and/or physical impairments, they still have abilities, contrary to the picture painted with the terms disabled or handicapped.
Presently, “differently abled” is used most in the US, where the term originated in the mid 1980s or early 1990s. This description was generated during a time when many people were attempting to contribute to and create much more politically correct language. Initial use of this term is typically attributed to US Democratic politicians, who were looking for some way to address the issues of people with mental or physical challenges without stigmatizing this group.
The shift from handicapped or disabled to differently abled attempts to more clearly see the gifts and full personhood of an individual. Certainly those with disabilities are not uncapable. There are many ways people compensate for a reduction in abilities, and those with these reductions may have special strengths that exceed that of the general population. Special Olympians, autistics with splinter skills, bipolar disordered individuals with exceptional creativity, and people with Down syndrome who have engaging personalities and elevated mood are all examples of this.
A person doesn’t have to have special skills to fit into the differently abled class. At the root, this term merely means these individuals do things in different ways than are expected from the general “abled” population. It’s a deviation from what is normally expected without an implied criticism.
Despite the intent, the term, differently abled, is still viewed with some contempt by people who might receive this label and by others. It still separates these individuals from the “abled” population and it describes them as different. Just like handicapped, special or disabled, it is associated with a certain amount of negativity. The label would likely insult a person who had no disabilities.
The understanding that it is easier not to have disabilities, and most people don’t want them lies at the heart of this controversy. Disability is not desired, even with a more positive spin on defining this state and recognition that disabled individuals can accomplish much. There is an implied negativity and fear about disability that colors each term describing people with challenges.
Moreover, when people are separated into a group by their disabled or differently abled state, they are different than others. Part of their personhood is still denied and they become a fringe group or demographic separate from “most other people.” It’s difficult to know if there is a better term that would not ultimately be perceived negatively by those who have or who are describing people with disabilities.
I'm all for avoiding demeaning labels, as in the case of "mentally retarded" becoming "intellectually challenged". The original word became so polarizing and demeaning that some people were using it as nothing more than slander against people of normal intelligence. "Retard" definitely needed to be retired as a description of the mentally challenged.
But I agree with you, @Cageybird, that it all got out of hand. "Differently abled" came out as a way to level the playing field or to help institutions become more inclusive. In reality, it had almost the opposite effect. Because the politically correct name itself became a joke, anyone referred to as "differently abled" were still being viewed as outcasts. Parents and educators were the only ones still trying to use the term as intended.
I think many of these politically correct terms have fallen out of popularity, even among the groups that created them in the first place. It practically became a game for people to create their own politically correct terms for the slightest deviations from average. A short person became "vertically challenged", for example. A bad singer could be described as "tonally challenged". The entire PC movement collapsed under its own weight.