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Disability

Written by Giselle M. Cancio
Reviewed by Angelique Geehan

Published on April 18, 2022

Why it's important

When discussing disability and addressing people with disabilities, it's important to use language that is as respectful, accurate, neutral, and objective 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 age 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

Disability Terminology

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.
  • Use language that emphasizes the need for accessibility, rather than the presence of a disability.
    • Example: “an accessible restroom” vs. “a disabled restroom.”
  • A disability is not an illness and people with disabilities are not patients. Only use “patient” if the person is actively receiving medical treatment.

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.

Don’t Use

Do Use

suffers from
has, is managing
afflicted with, stricken with, victim of
living with
handicapped, handicapable, or differently abled person
disabled person, person with a disability
handicap
disability
is wheelchair-bound, is confined to a wheelchair
uses a wheelchair
abnormality, defect, impairment
condition
severe
significant
demented person, dementing, dements, senile person, senility
person with dementia, person living with dementia; when possible, be specific about the disease, such as someone with Huntington's disease
normal, healthy, whole
people without disabilities, non-disabled
hunchbacked
person with a spinal curvature
deformed person, person with defects, defective person
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.

hint: scroll to view the full table

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 themselves 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
the student has dyslexia
Avoid using the word as a noun. Only identify a person with dyslexia if it's medically diagnosed.
paraplegic
people-first
the person has 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.

Neurodiversity

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.

Angelique Geehan

Reviewed by:

Angelique Geehan

Angelique Geehan works to support and repair the connections people have with themselves and their families, communities, and cultural practices. A queer, Asian, gender binary-nonconforming parent, Geehan founded Interchange — a consulting group that offers anti-oppression support. She organizes as part of several groups, including the National Perinatal Association's Health Equity Workgroup and QTPOC+ Family Circle.

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Related Pages

Sources

  1. 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
  2. National Center for Education Statistics. (n.d.). Students with disabilities. Retrieved January 27, 2022, from https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=60
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, September 16). Disability inclusion. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/disability-inclusion.html
  4. National Center on Disability and Journalism. (2021, August). Disability language style guide. https://ncdj.org/style-guide/
  5. 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