How do occupational therapy practitioners refer to the persons they serve, and how do these terms reflect our perception of disability as a profession? In the hospital or medical model, we call these persons patients; in the community we referred to them as clients; in the marketplace, they may be called consumers. Children serviced through the schools often are called students, and persons in long-term care may be called residents. However, most of the individuals we serve carry a diagnostic label that makes them eligible for services and defines the work of therapy (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2007; Shepard & Jensen, 2002). Impairment refers to the result of pathology, such as a physical, mental, or psychiatric condition. Disability refers to functional limitations as a result of disease or impairment, such as in ambulation or self-care activities. Handicap is the inability to participate in a life activity, such as work, recreation, and community involvement, because of external or internal barriers (CDC, 2007; Shepard & Jensen, 2002).
These terms, or “labels,” although currently necessary for eligibility and reimbursement of therapy programs, can be limiting and destructive to one’s self-concept as a human being. With that understanding, how should occupational therapy practitioners address persons within our service? What terms are acceptable, respectful, and honorable and enhance our clientele’s self-image? Through the use of historical inquiry, this article explores the evolution of language in the occupational therapy profession.
Loukas, Kathryn M., "The Evolution Of Language And Perception Of Disability In Occupational Therapy" (2008). Occupational Therapy Faculty Publications. 8.