Respectful Disability Language
A guide for using appropriate disability language and terminology.
"The difference between the right word and the almost-right word
is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."
- Mark Twain
What does "Respectful Disability Language" Mean?
The Disability Rights Movement advocates for positive changes in society. These changes include equal rights under the law and equal access to housing and employment. It could also mean improving how people with disabilities are talked about in places like the media or in everyday conversations. The use of language and words describing people with disabilities has changed over time. It's important that people are aware of the meaning behind the words they use when talking to, referring to, or working with the Disability Community. Disrespectful language can make people feel excluded and can be a barrier to full participation. This is a guide to using respectful words and language.
When does Language = Power?
Imagine living your whole life always having to explain why the words that people use are hurtful and offensive to you. Teachers, co-workers, friends, and family need to know how the words and phrases they use make you feel. Many of us are brought up in homes in which we are the only one with a disability. Maybe we haven't learned to think of ourselves or other people with disabilities as proud individuals. People with disabilities want respect and acceptance.
Many people who do not have a disability now will have one in the future. Others will have a family member or a friend who will become disabled. If you become disabled in your lifetime, how do you want people to describe you? If a family member or friend becomes disabled, how would you want him/her to be treated? Disability affects all people. So learn respectful language and teach others.
General Guidelines for Talking about Disability
- Refer to a person's disability only when it is related to what you are talking about. For example, don't ask "What's wrong with you?" Don't refer to people in general or generic terms such as "the girl in the wheelchair."
- When talking about places with accommodations for people with disabilities, use the term "accessible" rather than "disabled" or "handicapped." For example, refer to an "accessible" parking space rather than a "disabled" or "handicapped" parking space or "an accessible bathroom stall" rather than "a handicapped bathroom stall."
- Use the term "disability," and take the following terms out of your vocabulary when talking about or talking to people with disabilities. Don't use the terms "handicapped," "differently-abled," "cripple/crippled," "retarded," "poor," "unfortunate," or "special needs." Don't say "victim of," "suffering from," or "stricken with" a disability; instead, say the person "has a disability."
- Just because someone has a disability, it doesn't mean he/she is "courageous," "brave," "special," or "superhuman." People with disabilities are the same as everyone else. It is not unusual for someone with a disability to have talents, skills, and abilities.
- It is okay to use words or phrases such as "disabled," "disability," or "people with disabilities" when talking about disability issues. Ask the people you are with which term they prefer if they have a disability.
- When talking about people without disabilities, it is okay to say "people without disabilities." But do not refer to them as "normal" or "healthy." These terms can make people with disabilities feel as though there is something wrong with them and that they are "abnormal."
- When in doubt, call a person with a disability by his/her name.
Words to Describe Different Disabilities
Here are some ways that people with disabilities are described. This list includes "out-dated language" - terms and phrases that should not be used. This list also includes respectful words that should be used to describe different disabilities. 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.
|Disability||Out-Dated Language||Respectful Language|
|Blind or Visually Impairment||Dumb, Invalid||Blind/Visually Impaired, Person who is blind/visually impaired|
|Deaf or Hearing Impairment||Invalid, Deaf-and-Dumb, Deaf-Mute||Deaf or Hard-of-hearing, Person who is deaf or hard of hearing|
|Speech/Communication Disability||Dumb, "One who talks bad"||Person with a speech / communication disability|
|Learning Disability||Retarded, Slow, Brain- Damaged, "Special ed"||Learning disability, Cognitive disability, Person with a learning or cognitive disability|
|Mental Health Disability||Hyper-sensitive, Psycho, Crazy, Insane, Wacko, Nuts||Person with a psychiatric disability, Person with a mental health disability|
|Mobility/Physical Disability||Handicapped, Physically Challenged, "Special," Deformed, Cripple, Gimp, Spastic, Spaz, Wheelchair-bound, Lame
Wheelchair user, Physically disabled, Person with a mobility or physical disability
||Emotionally disabled, Person with an emotional disability|
|Cognitive Disability||Retard, Mentally retarded, "Special ed"
||Cognitively/Developmentally disabled, Person with a cognitive/developmental disability|
|Short Stature, Little Person||Dwarf, Midget||Someone of short stature, Little Person
|Health Conditions||Victim, Someone "stricken with" a disability (i.e. "someone stricken with cancer" or "an AIDS victim")
||Survivor, Someone "living with" a specific disability (i.e. "someone living with cancer or AIDS")|
(c) 2006 This document titled Respectful Disability Language: Here's What's Up! was co-written by the National Youth Leadership Network (NYLN), and NCDE Roundtable Consortium member, and Kids as Self Advocates (KASA)
For more information or a training resource, download the free Disability Etiquette Handbook, published by the United Spinal Association.