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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.


Article originally published in Special Interest Sections (SIS) Quarterly:
Loukas, K. M. (2008). The evolution of language and perception of disability in occupational therapy. The Education Special Interest Section Newsletter, 18(2). Bethesda, MD: The American Occupational Therapy Association.

© AOTA; placed here with permission.



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