Why It’s Important
When discussing disability and addressing people with disabilities, it’s important to use language that is as respectful, accurate, and neutral as possible.
According to the CDC,1 61 million adults in the United States live with a disability, which equates to roughly 1 in 4 adults. Disability is especially common in adults ages 65 and older, women, and non-Hispanic American Indians/Alaska Natives. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows 19% of undergraduates in 2015-2016 reported having a disability.2 Disability inclusion involves understanding the relationship between the way people function and how they participate in society.3
Your Language Matters
When communicating about disability, keep the following general tips in mind:
- Ask if an individual is willing to disclose their disability. Do not assume.
- Emphasize abilities, not limitations.
- There is no universal agreement on the use of terms — proceed with caution, ask individuals what their preferred identifiers or labels may be, and avoid using recently coined words such as “diversability” and “handicapable” unless the most affected individuals request that you do.
- A disability is not an illness, and people with disabilities are not patients. Only use “patient” if the person is actively receiving medical treatment.
- Use language that emphasizes the need for accessibility, rather than the presence of a disability.
- Example: “an accessible restroom” vs. “a disabled restroom.”
Also be sure to completely avoid the following terminology:
- Don’t use offensive terms such as “freak,” “r*tard (or any construction with “t*rd” in it),” “lame,” “imbecile,” “vegetable,” “crazy,” “insane,” or “psycho” — these words often reflect imprecision about something negative or derogatory unrelated to mental health.
- Avoid using the term “cripple” as a noun or a verb unless describing the crip movement or if used in a direct quote.
- Avoid using “homebound/housebound” unless it’s used in a direct quote.
- Don’t use “nonspeaking” or “nonverbal” without first asking the person or someone who knows them how they would like to be described.
- Do not use “mongoloid” to refer to someone with Down syndrome. This applies even to direct quotes.
- Avoid the term “burden” when referring to helping or caring for a person with a disability.
afflicted with, stricken with, victim of
handicapped, handicapable, or differently abled person
is wheelchair-bound, is confined to a wheelchair
abnormality, defect, impairment
demented person, dementing, dements, senile person, senility
normal, healthy, whole
deformed person, person with defects, defective person
has, is managing
disabled person, person with a disability
uses a wheelchair
person with dementia, person living with dementia; when possible, be specific about the disease, such as someone with Huntington's disease
people without disabilities, non-disabled
person with a spinal curvature
person who has a physical disability
People-First Language vs. Identity-First Language
People-first language avoids defining people in terms of their disability. For example, “a person living with a disability” instead of “a disabled person.” Identity-first language means the disability is mentioned first. For example, “a blind person” instead of “a person who is blind.”
The National Center on Disability and Journalism recommends4 asking the person with a disability how they prefer to be described. If that is not possible, consider asking a spokesperson for the organization representing the relevant disability for preferred terminology.
While it’s always best to confirm directly what type of language a person or community prefers,5 we recommend the following usage when direct confirmation isn’t possible.
|Condition / Identifying Characteristic||Generally Preferred Language||Example||Note|
|autism||identity-first||autistic person||Avoid using the phrases "high-functioning" and "low-functioning" to describe autistic people.|
|deafness||identity-first||Deaf students||"Deaf" is capitalized when referring to Deaf culture or someone who identifies as culturally Deaf.|
|blindness, visual impairment||identity-first||blind student (if legally blind), visually impaired student (in other instances)||Unless the person refers to themself as legally blind, the terms "low vision," "limited vision," or "visually impaired" should be used.|
|dwarfism||identity-first||dwarf student||Do not use "vertically challenged" or "midget."|
|ADHD||people-first||students with ADHD||Only identify a person with ADHD if it's medically diagnosed.|
|dyslexia||people-first||student with dyslexia||Only identify a person with dyslexia if it's medically diagnosed.|
|paraplegic||people-first||person with paraplegia||Sometimes people with paraplegia refer to themselves as a "para." In those cases, use the word in quotes.|
|psychosis||people-first||person experiencing psychosis, person experiencing a psychotic episode||Avoid using "psychotic" as an adjective to describe a person.|
The Oxford English Dictionary defines neurodiversity6 as “the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits, regarded as part of the normal variation in the human population (used especially in the context of autism spectrum disorders).”
Because neurodiversity is a new term, consider including the definition when using it, and remember that not everyone prefers the term.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, September 16). Disability impacts all of us. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/infographic-disability-impacts-all.html
- National Center for Education Statistics. (n.d.). Students with disabilities. Retrieved January 27, 2022, from https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=60
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, September 16). Disability inclusion. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/disability-inclusion.html
- National Center on Disability and Journalism. (2021, August). Disability language style guide. https://ncdj.org/style-guide/
- ADA Knowledge Translation Center. (n.d.). Guidelines for writing about people with disabilities. ADA National Network. Retrieved January 27, 2022, from https://adata.org/factsheet/ADANN-writing
- Oxford English Dictionary. (2019, June). New words list June 2019. https://public.oed.com/updates/new-words-list-june-2019/