Is “Suffers From” Ever Appropriate When Talking About Disability?

Dec 08, 2018

Anonymous asks, quote:

I teach a university level disability studies class and am constantly correcting language in papers I grade. A particular phrase I have trouble with is “suffers from disability”. It seems black and white that, when discussing most disabilities, “suffers from” is completely inappropriate. However, I struggle to enforce this rule when my students are writing about mental health. I have an eating disorder and literally feel I suffer daily from the impact on my life. Do you think that “suffers from” is ever an appropriate phrase to use when talking about mental illness or disability?

end quote.

I consider “suffers from” to be first-person or “internal” language and “has”, “was diagnosed with”, “experiences”, etc., to be third-person or “external” language. If your students are talking about a condition they themselves have (depression, anxiety, spina bifida, etc.,), “suffer from” could be an appropriate description depending on how they feel about it. If they’re talking about a condition someone else has, more “external” wording is appropriate:

“She experiences terrible migraines.”

“I suffer from terrible migraines”

“IHe was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at a young age.”

“I suffer from cerebral palsy.”

However, when talking about a condition that is inherently temporary/some kind of injury, “suffered” is appropriate:

“He suffered a concussion.”

“The children are suffering from the measles.”

“ They suffered through their aunt explaining how olive oil can cure cancer. ”

If you need to give a hard and fast rule to your students, I would instruct them to avoid and stick to the less problematic third‐person(ish) phrases.