What to call people with disabilities

by Beth

What to Call People With DisabilitiesOur son Gus was born with a genetic defect called Trisomy 12p. I never liked referring to him as “disabled,” and when he was in elementary school I dodged the d-word by referring to the other kids at the school as “average.”

“Gus is in a self-contained classroom most of the day,” I’d tell other parents. “But he eats lunch and goes to music and art classes with the average kids.” I was pleased with the way that phrasing turned the word-game on its head. I hoped it gave them an idea of how it felt to hear a child referred to by a title you didn’t care for — few parents think of their children as “average.”

There’s a lot of discussion on social media now about the use of the term “disabled” to describe someone who has an impairment that sets them apart from the majority. A post on BBC’s Ouch blog Wednesday explained what the discussion is all about.

The post defined “dis” as having a primitive, negative or reversing force. “To discredit. To disengage. And in recent parlance “diss,” with an extra “s”, has been popularized as an abbreviation of disrespect – don’t diss me.”

The post points out that “dis” is not a prefix people want to put on a child, or on themselves, either. “It is, after all, inherently negative.” Potential replacements for describing someone as “Having a disability” were peppered throughout the post. I’m listing them here along with terms I’ve heard bandied about as well:

  • having a dis-ability
  • having a disAbility
  • differently able
  • special
  • with special needs
  • different
  • mutant
  • humanly different
  • unable
  • inspirational
  • possessing a form of human variation
  • having a reality to be accommodated

So what do you think? Is there a word or phrase on this list you prefer using when referring to someone with an impairment that sets them apart from the majority? Can you choose a favorite from this list? Tell us in the comments, and if you have any others to suggest, please leave them in the comments, too. I’m all ears!

Disability Etiquette

As we’ve become more sensitive to the needs of persons with disabilities, one aspect of society that has remained stubbornly behind the curve are the words we use to describe another. The push for people first language is on.

Using proper terminology is empowering

Misused, outdated, or negative terminology is inappropriate and hurtful. A person with impairment should not be defined by his or her condition: He is not spastic, he has spastic Cerebral Palsy. Recognizing outdated terminology is respectful: She is not wheelchair-bound, she uses a wheelchair.

Eliminating negative tone is respectful: He is not ‘special ed,’ he participates in the special education program.

Eliminating disrespectful slang and words that imply victimization is appropriate: He is not a victim, unfortunate, crippled, sufferer, stricken by, retarded, spastic, or incapacitated; he simply has impairment.

As those within the medical industry and the community-based support network move towards universally accepted concepts and shared terminology, many terms will continue to be modified, changed, and more clearly define. Terminology continues to evolve.

Even though the terms impairment, disability and handicap are accepted today, they may be changed tomorrow. In fact, in 2005 the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended classifying Cerebral Palsy as an ‘activity limitation’ versus ‘impairment.

’ Yet, others prefer ‘activity ability’ in order to concentrate on a person’s capability, rather than his or her limitation. Some recommend using the term ‘participation restriction’ in place of ‘handicap.

’ Although recommendations are made, not all are established.

“Becoming aware of our own perceptions, stereotypes and discomforts around particular disabilities is the first step towards addressing subtle biases that could possibly be projected onto individuals with disabilities,” St. Mary’s County Commission for People with Disabilities states. “Our own beliefs and comfort level around disability has a major impact on how we view, interact, and provide service and programs.”

Taking a closer look at ‘people first’ language

We all want to see ourselves as intelligent, competent, and worthy of respect. But that’s more difficult for a child with Cerebral Palsy than it needs to be.

In the case of children with Cerebral Palsy, they may be defined in the medical setting as a child with a physical impairment, or a child with spastic quadriplegia. But, out in the community, some use outdated terminology as an identifier, such as the “handicapped child” or “disabled person.”

Words to describe people with disability

Here are some ways that people with disability are described.  This list includes “out-dated language” – terms and phrases that should not be used. This list also includes respectful words which should be used to describe different impairments. What is “okay” for some people is not ‘okay’ for others.  If you don’t know what to say, just ask how a person likes to be described.

List of words and recommended alternatives

When referring to people with disability in general…

Terms to avoid:

  • afflicted by           
  • crippled by          
  • diffability
  • differently abled
  • handicap(ped)
  • handicapable
  • specially abled
  • special needs
  • suffers from           
  • the disabled
  • victim of          
  • with different abilities
  • person with a disability
  • people with disabilities

Recommended alternatives:

  • people with disability (women with disability, children with disability, etc)
  • has disability
  • lives with disability
  • has a chronic health condition
  • lives with a chronic health condition

When referring to someone who uses a wheelchair…

Terms to avoid:

  • confined to a wheelchair
  • wheelchair-bound

Recommended alternatives:

  • wheelchair user
  • person who uses a wheelchair
  • When referring to a person whose legs and/ or lower body are paralysed…
  • Terms to avoid:
  • Recommended alternatives:
  • When referring to a person who has four limbs paralysed…
  • Terms to avoid:
  • Recommended alternatives:
  • When referring to a person of short stature or with a form of dwarfism
  • Terms to avoid:
  • Recommended alternatives:
  • When referring to someone with an intellectual disability…
  • Terms to avoid:
  • intellectually challenged
  • mental defective
  • mentally retarded
  • mentally disabled
  • simple
  • special
  • moron
  • retard/retarded
  • imbecile
  • cretin

Recommended alternatives:

  • person with cognitive disability
  • person with intellectual disability
  1. When referring to someone who has Down syndrome…
  2. Terms to avoid: 
  3. Recommended alternatives:
  • person with Down syndrome
See also:  National punctuation day

When referring to someone who has learning disability…

Terms to avoid:

  • slow
  • slow learner
  • retarded
  • special needs

Recommended alternatives:

  • person with learning disability
  • When referring to a person diagnosed  with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)…
  • Terms to avoid:
  • Recommended alternatives:
  • When referring to a person with a brain injury…
  • Terms to avoid: 
  • brain-damaged
  • brain-impaired

Recommended alternatives:

  • person with a brain injury

When referring to someone who has autism…

Terms to avoid: 

  • aspy/aspie
  • autistic*
  • high-functioning
  • autism
  • profoundly autistic

Recommended alternatives:

  • autistic person*
  • person with autism
  • person on the autism spectrum
  • neuroatypical
  • neurodivergent

When referring to someone with psychosocial disability…

Terms to avoid: 

  • crazy
  • insane/insanity
  • mad
  • manic
  • maniac
  • mental
  • mental case
  • mental defective
  • mentally unstable
  • psycho(tic)
  • psychopath(ic)

Recommended alternatives:

  • person with psychosocial disability
  • person with a mental health condition
  • person with            (insert the name of their condition if you know it and have their consentto disclose it) (e.g. person with depression, person with bipolar disorder, etc)

When referring to someone with sensory disability…

Terms to avoid:

  • blind as a bat
  • deaf and dumb
  • mute

Recommended alternatives:

  • b/Blind (if they identify that way)
  • d/Deaf (if they identify that way)
  • hard of hearing (sometimes stylised as HoH)
  • person with a hearing impairment
  • person with a visual impairment
  • person with vision impairment

When referring to someone who does not have disability…

Terms to avoid:

  • able-bodied**
  • abled**
  • healthy
  • hearing
  • normal
  • of sound body
  • sighted
  • well

Recommended alternatives:

  • person without disability
  • non-disabled person
  1. When referring to someone who does not have intellectual, psychosocial or cognitive disability…
  2. Terms to avoid: 
  3. Recommended alternatives:
  4. * Some people with autism identify as autistic people, or do not find the term ‘autistic’ offensive, because they consider autism an identity beyond the medical diagnosis.
  5. ** Some people with disability who use identity-first language will use ‘abled’ to describe non-disabled people, and ‘able-bodied’ to describe people without physical or mobility-related disability.
  6. Remember that people with disability are people with human rights the same as everyone else, and having our human rights fulfilled should be expected.

Language to avoid

The following are derogatory  terms for people with intellectual or cognitive disability, no matter the context in which they are said. Usage should always be avoided. The terms are listed here in the aim of education on their origins and why they must be avoided and PWDA does not condone their use.

  • brainless
  • cretin
  • derp(y)
  • dim(-witted)
  • dumb
  • idiot(ic)
  • imbecile/imbecilic
  • feeble-minded
  • few ______ short of a ______
  • mental(ly) defective
  • mongol(oid)
  • moron(ic)
  • mong
  • nong
  • retard(ed)
  • simple-minded
  • simpleton
  • slow-witted (also fuckwit, witless)
  • stupid

The following are  derogatory terms for people with psychosocial disability, no matter the context in which they are said. Usage should always be avoided. The terms are listed here in the aim of education on their origins and why they must be avoided, but PWDA does not condone their use.

  • crazy
  • daft
  • insane/insanity
  • loony
  • lunatic
  • mad(ness)
  • madhouse/madman
  • maniac
  • mental case
  • nuts
  • psycho(tic
  • psychopath(ic)
  • sped (from ‘special education’)
  • whacko

The following are derogatory terms for people with physical or mobility-related disability, no matter the context in which they are said. Usage should always be avoided. The terms are listed here in the aim of education on their origins and why they must be avoided and PWDA does not condone their use.

  • cripple
  • crip
  • crippled by ______
  • handicapped
  • gimp(y)
  • invalid
  • lame
  • spastic/spazz

It is important to note that some derogatory terms have been reclaimed by some people with disability, but that does not mean those terms are appropriate for non-disabled people to use.

For some people with disability, proudly identifying as ‘a crip’ or ‘mad’ is a way of surviving in a world that is still slinging those slurs at us.

It may feel empowering for some people with disability to take back a violent word, but others will find the word still unbearably painful. Avoid or approach these words with caution because they have a violent history (and present).

Back: Reporting On Disability

Guidelines for Writing About People With Disabilities

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(Spanish version)

Words are powerful.                                                                        

The words you use and the way you portray individuals with disabilities matters. This factsheet provides guidelines for portraying individuals with disabilities in a respectful and balanced way by using language that is accurate, neutral and objective.

1.  Ask to find out if an individual is willing to disclose their disability

Do not assume that people with disabilities are willing to disclose their disability. While some people prefer to be public about their disability, such as including information about their disability in a media article, others choose to not be publically identified as a person with a disability.

2.  Emphasize abilities, not limitations

Choosing language that emphasizes what people can do instead of what they can’t do is empowering.

Use Don’t Use
Person who uses a wheelchair Wheelchair-bound; confined to a wheelchair
Person who uses a communication device; uses an alternative method of communication Is non-verbal; can’t talk

3. In general, refer to the person first and the disability second

People with disabilities are, first and foremost, people.  Labeling a person equates the person with a condition and can be disrespectful and dehumanizing. A person isn’t a disability, condition or diagnosis; a person has a disability, condition or diagnosis. This is called Person-First Language.

Use Don’t Use
Person with a disability, people with disabilities Disabled person; the disabled
Man with paraplegia Paraplegic; paraplegic man
Person with a learning disability Slow learner
Student receiving special education services Special education student
A person of short stature or little person Dwarf, midget

4.  However, always ask to find out an individual’s language preferences

People with disabilities have different preferences when referring to their disability.

 Some people see their disability as an essential part of who they are and prefer to be identified with their disability first – this is called Identity-First Language. Others prefer Person-First Language.

Examples of Identity-First Language include identifying someone as a deaf person instead of a person who is deaf, or an autistic person instead of a person with autism.

See also:  And/or

5.  Use neutral language

Do not use language that portrays the person as passive or suggests a lack of something: victim, invalid, defective.

Use Don’t Use
Person who has had a stroke Stroke victim
Congenital disability Birth defect
Person with epilepsy Person afflicted with epilepsy, epileptic
Person with a brain injury Brain damaged, brain injury sufferer
Burn survivor Burn victim

6. Use language that emphasizes the need for accessibility rather than the presence of a disability

Use Don’t Use
Accessible parking Handicapped parking
Accessible restroom Disabled restroom

Note that ‘handicapped’ is an outdated and unacceptable term to use when referring to individuals or accessible environments.

7.  Do not use condescending euphemisms

disability and people with disabilities – synonyms and related words


the loss of the ability to control the movements your body makes


people who cannot see


unable to do particular things without difficulty because of being disabled in some way


a condition in which someone is not able to use a part of their body or brain properly, for example because of an injury


someone who is disabled is unable to use part of their body or brain properly because of injury or disease


people who are disabled. Some people consider this word offensive and prefer to use the expression ‘people with disabilities’.


formal a condition in which someone is not able to use a part of their body or brain properly because of injury or disease


old-fashioned permanently unable to speak. This word is now usually considered offensive. The more usual word is speech impaired.


old-fashioned a physical or mental injury or illness that is severe and permanent. This word is now considered offensive and it is more polite to say that someone has a disability


old-fashioned someone who is handicapped has a permanent injury, illness, or other problem that makes them unable to use their body or mind normally. This word is now considered offensive and it is more polite to say that someone is learning disabled, visually impaired, hearing impaired, or simply disabled.


old-fashioned people who are disabled. This is now considered offensive and it is more polite to say people with disabilities.


if your body’s ability to do something is impaired, you are not fully able to do it


the fact that a part of your body is unable to do something fully


a physical or psychological problem that affects how well someone can do something


used for describing someone who is disabled because their leg or foot is damaged. This word is now considered offensive.


unable to learn basic skills or information at the same rate as other people


a condition in which a patient is awake and aware but cannot move or speak because almost all the muscles in the body except for the eyes are paralysed


old-fashioned not able to speak


offensive someone who is not able to speak


unable to move your body or part of it, usually because of an injury or illness


the loss of the ability to move your body or a part of it, usually because of an injury or illness


someone who is affected by paraplegia


disabled in a way that prevents you from using part of your body properly


someone who is quadriplegic has an illness or injury that makes them permanently unable to move their body below their neck


offensive an old-fashioned word for someone who has not developed mentally as much as most other people of the same age. This word is now considered offensive.


educational services for people with disabilities and people who have difficulty learning at the usual rate


the particular needs of people who have physical or mental disabilities


relating to people who have special needs, or to the things that are provided for them

a series of international sports competitions for people who have learning difficulties


education an official report from a local authority about a child who has special needs relating to their development or behaviour


a chair with large wheels that someone who cannot walk uses for moving around

Guidelines for Writing and Referring to People with Disabilities

  1. Do not refer to a disability or condition unless it is crucial to your subject and relates to the full understanding of your listener or reader.
  2. Avoid portraying as superhuman the accomplishments of a person with a disability. This inadvertently implies that a person with a disability lacks or has very limited skills, talents, or unusual gifts.

  3. Do not use subjective terms such as afflicted with, victim of, troubled with, suffering from and so on. Such expressions convey negative connotations. It is preferable to use an expression such as a person who has (a specific disability).

  4. Avoid labeling persons and putting them in categories, as in the handicapped, the disabled, the deaf, the retarded, the learning disabled,and so on. Instead, use terminology such as: a person who has multiple sclerosis, people with disabilities, a person with deafness, and so on.
  5. Emphasize the individual not the disability.

    Rather than using terms such as disabled person, handicapped people, a crippled person, use terms such as people/persons with disabilities, a person with a disability, or a person with a visual impairment.

  6. Do not use subjective descriptors such as “unfortunate”, “pitiful”, or “sad” when describing people with disabilities.

     Emphasize abilities, for example, instead of saying John is confined to his wheelchair, use a positive expression of ability such as John uses a wheelchair. Or, Mary is partially sighted rather than Mary is partially blind.

  7. Avoid comparing a disability with a disease.

    Do not refer to a person with disability as a patient unless he/she is under medical care.

  8. It is preferable to use terms such as consumer or person with a disability rather than terms such as client.

  9. Do not minimize individual differences that distinguish one person with a disability from another with the same disability, by using a phrase such as garden variety (specific disability) to refer to an individual or group of individuals with similar disabilities.

  10. As a service provider to people with disabilities, avoid using possessive generalizations such as my MRs, or our LDs. Expressions such as the people we serve with partial vision, the persons we serve with developmental disabilities, or the persons we serve who are differently abled, promote positive recognition of individuals.

  • For more information on using “People First Language” please contact the REACH Resource Centers on Independent Living in Fort Worth, Dallas, Denton, and Plano, TX. 
  • Appropriate Terminology for Specific Disabilities 
  • Listed below are preferred words that reflect a positive attitude in portraying disabilities: 

Blind. Describes a condition in which a person has a loss of vision for ordinary life purposes. Generally, anyone with less than 10% of normal vision would be regarded as legally blind. 

Burn Injury. Describes damage to the skin which permanently alters its appearance. Rather than say burn victim say burn survivor or person with a burn injury. 

Deaf. Deafness refers to a profound degree of hearing loss that prevents understanding speech though the ear. Hearing impaired and hearing loss are generic terms used by some individuals to indicate any degree of hearing loss–from mild to profound.

These terms include people who are hard of hearing and deaf. However, some individuals completely disfavor the term hearing impaired. Others prefer to use deaf or hard of hearing. Hard of hearing refers to a mild to moderate hearing loss that may or may not be corrected with amplification.

Use woman who is deaf, boy who is hard of hearing, individuals or people with hearing loss. 

Disability. General term used for a functional limitation that interferes with a person's ability for example, to walk, lift, hear, or learn. It may refer to a physical, sensory, or mental condition.

Use as a descriptive noun or adjective, such as person living with AIDS, woman who is blind. or man with a disability. Impairment refers to loss or abnormality of an organ or body mechanism, which may result in disability.


Handicap. Not a synonym for disability. Describes a condition or barrier imposed by society, the environment, or by one's own self. Some individuals prefer inaccessible or not accessible to describe social and environmental barriers.

Handicap can be used when citing laws and situations but should not be used to describe a disability. Do not refer to people with disabilities as the handicapped or handicapped people. Say the building is not accessible for a wheelchair-user.

The stairs are a handicap for her. 

Head injury. Describes a condition where there is long-term or temporary disruption in brain functioning. Use persons with head injury, people who have sustained brain damage , woman who has sustained traumatic brain injury, or boy with a closed head injury. 

Mental Illness/Mental Disability. Describes a condition where there is loss of social and/or vocational skills. Do not use mentally deranged, crazy, deviant.

Mental disability describes all of the recognized forms of mental illness, severe emotional disorder, or mental retardation. Terms such as neurotic, psychotic, and schizophrenic should be reserved for technical medical writing only.

Use man with mental illness, woman with a mental disorder. 

Non-disabled. Appropriate term for people without disabilities. The terms normal, able-bodied, healthy, or whole are inappropriate. 

Seizure. Describes an involuntary muscular contraction, a brief impairment or loss of consciousness, etc. resulting from a neurological condition such as epilepsy or from an acquired brain injury. Rather than epileptic, say girl with epilepsy or boy with a seizure disorder. The term convulsion should be used only for seizures involving contraction of the entire body. 

Spastic. Describes a muscle with sudden abnormal and involuntary spasm. Not appropriate for describing someone with cerebral palsy. Muscles are spastic, not people. 

Special. Describes that which is different or uncommon about any person. Do not use to describe person with disabilities. (Except when citing laws or regulations). 

Specific Learning Disability. Describes a permanent condition that affects the way individuals with average or above-average intelligence take in, retain and express information. Specific is preferred, because it emphasizes that only certain learning processes are affected. 

Speech Disorder Describes a condition where a person has limited or difficult speech patterns. Use child who has a speech disorder. For a person with no verbal speech capability, use woman without speech. Do not use mute. 

Spinal Cord Injury. Describes a condition where there has been permanent damage to the spinal cord. Quadriplegia describes substantial or total loss of function in all four extremities. Paraplegia refers to substantial ot total loss of function in the lower part of the body only. Say man with paraplegia, woman who is paralyzed. 

Visually Impaired is the generic term preferred by some individuals to refer to all degrees of vision loss. Examples: boy who is blind, girl who is visually impaired, man who has low vision.

Appropriate Terms to Use

When writing or speaking about people with disabilities it is important to put the person first. Catch-all phrases such as 'the blind', 'the deaf' or 'the disabled, do not reflect the individuality, equality or dignity of people with disabilities.

Listed below are some recommendations for use when describing, speaking or writing about people with disabilities.

Some examples of appropriate terms:

  • Term no longer in use: the disabledTerm Now Used: people with disabilities or disabled people
  • Term no longer in use: wheelchair-boundTerm Now Used: persons who uses a wheelchair
  • Term no longer in use: confined to a wheelchairTerm Now Used: wheelchair user
  • Term no longer in use: cripple, spastic, victimTerm Now Used: disabled person, person with a disability
  • Term no longer in use: the handicappedTerm Now Used: disabled person, person with a disability
  • Term no longer in use: mental handicapTerm Now Used: intellectual disability
  • Term no longer in use: mentally handicappedTerm Now Used: intellectually disabled
  • Term no longer in use: normalTerm Now Used: non-disabled
  • Term no longer in use: schizo, madTerm Now Used: person with a mental health disability
  • Term no longer in use: suffers from (e.g. asthma)Term Now Used: has (e.g. asthma)

Reproduced from the NDA Guidelines on Consultation

Source: Making Progress Together, 2000 – People with Disabilities in Ireland Ltd.

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