Disability and Language

Attendees, including Judith Heumann, gather around a table at a meeting of the Presidents’ Council.

This resource seeks to provide tips on rights-affirming language and narratives preferred by people with disabilities. It is a starting point intended to foster communications that affirm human dignity, reflect the power and autonomy of disabled people, and support the advancement of disability justice and rights.

Too often, mass media reinforces negative disability narratives and stereotypes. Adding to the confusion, non-disabled people often have limited interaction with people with disabilities, which sometimes leaves them uncertain about using the “right” language. This can hinder the critical conversations, learning, and interactions necessary to strengthen disability inclusion in our organizations and communities. That said, learning about language must be paired with genuine changes in attitudes and practices that commit organizations to disability inclusion.

Talking the Talk of Disability Inclusion

Use the terms “people with disabilities” or “disabled people” rather than euphemisms.

These terms are reflective of “people first” language and “identity first” language, respectively. According to The Arc, “people first language emphasizes the person, not the disability. By placing the person first, the disability is no longer the primary, defining characteristic of an individual, but one of several aspects of the whole person. It eliminates generalizations and stereotypes, by focusing on the person rather than the disability.” Identity first language intentionally places the disability first, recognizing it as part of a person’s identity. Remember, language is personal and every person will have their own preferences. It is best to honor each individual’s preference. And be sure to keep in mind that terms like “differently-abled,” “physically challenged,” “handicapable,” or “special needs” are widely considered patronizing. Avoiding the word “disability” can inadvertently reinforce stigma.

Further Reading

Emphasize abilities and the need for accessibility.

Use language and narratives focused on the strength and agency of disabled people rather than on disease and medical interventions. Only mention a person’s disability when it is relevant to the story or context. Relatedly, accessible devices, such as wheelchairs or hearing aids, do not “confine” people with disabilities but advance inclusion and access. The term “accessible” is preferred to “handicapped,” which is outdated and unacceptable (i.e. accessible parking instead of handicapped parking).

Frame ableism and disability discrimination as a collective, systemic problem.

Ableism is a structural inequity and should be portrayed as such. Using the terms “overcome” or “in spite of” inaccurately suggests that the onus is on the disabled person to overcome discrimination through personal effort, or that a disability identity is inherently a problem to be solved. The problem is not the individual, but structural discrimination.

Use words and framing that reflect political and social power.

People with disabilities are active community participants and leaders and should be portrayed as such. Communications should depict disabled people interacting with those with and without disabilities. Avoid using words that sensationalize disability or connote pity, such as “suffers from,” “victim of,” or group designations like “the blind.”

Portray people with disabilities in a balanced way, not as heroic or inspiring.

It’s patronizing to portray a person with a disability as inspiring simply because they live their life, attend school, graduate from college, and go to work. When sharing stories about disabled people, avoid attributing their success to superhuman powers (also called “super crip”), which may reinforce ideas that disabled people must be exceptional to be valued.

Language guidance 

Please note the below is a sample rather than a comprehensive list.

AFFIRMATIVENEGATIVE
accessible parking or accommodationshandicap accessible
children with disabilitiesspecial needs children
Deaf, hard of hearing
(The uppercase “D” in “Deaf” is used to describe people who culturally identify as Deaf and share a common language, American Sign Language.)
the deaf; deaf, dumb, and mute; hearing impaired
non-disabled person, person without a disabilityable-bodied, normal, whole
Person with autism, Autistic
(Similar to the use of Deaf, some people prefer identity-first language and capitalization of Autistic.)
person who is blind or has low visionthe blind
person who had a strokestroke victim, suffered from a stroke
person with a congenital or developmental disabilitydeformed, person with a birth defect
person with epilepsy or a seizure disorderepileptic, spastic, person who has “fits”
person with an intellectual disabilityslow, mentally retarded, dim-witted
person with a learning disabilityslow learner, retarded, stupid
person with a physical disabilitycrippled, handicapped, deformed, lame
person with a psychiatric or psychosocial disability or with a mental health diagnosiscrazy, maniac, lunatic, moron, mad, demented, schizo, psycho, feeble-minded
person of short stature, little person, dwarfmidget
person with a spinal cord injuryquadriplegic, paraplegic, incapacitated
wheelchair-userwheelchair-bound, confined to a wheelchair