Attachment A Lanugage and Terminology



Why is the correct terminology important when referring to a person with a disability?

Language is the basis of your thoughts and attitudes about people with disabilities.  Terminology continually evolves.  Staying current is important, not to show that you are “politically correct,” but to communicate effectively and appropriately on the subject of disability.  Without being aware of what is current and appropriate language, a person may inadvertently offend another person or convey a message that they did not intend to convey.  Using “people first” language emphasizes the individual and not your perception of any possible limitation caused by the presence of a disability.

What does “people first” language mean?

It means that you refer to a “person” first, then to his or her disability.  For example, say a “person with a disability” rather than a “disabled person.”  If you refer to a person by his or her disability, (i.e., blind person, deaf person, etc.), you inappropriately make that characteristic more important that his or her status as a person.

How do I avoid segregation when talking about people with disabilities?

Be careful not to use language like “we or they,” which suggests segregation.  Avoid grouping all individuals with disabilities together.  For example, do not refer to a particular group as “the disabled,” “the deaf,” or “the blind.”

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I’ve heard so many different ways to describe persons with disabilities.  How do I know what is correct?

Avoid trendy terminology like “challenged,” “handi-capable,” “differently-abled,” or “physically-challenged.”  These terms are mostly invented and used by people without disabilities.  Some people with disabilities may choose these terms, but the majority believe these terms are condescending and prefer they not be used.  Most people with disabilities prefer to be called a “person with a disability” or a “person who has a disability.”

What is the proper way to speak to or write about someone who has a disability?

In speaking or writing, remember that children or adults with disabilities are like everyone else — except they happen to have a disability.  Therefore, here are a few tips for improving your language related to disabilities:


  • speak of the person first, then the disability

  • emphasize abilities, not limitations

  • don’t give unsolicited praise or attention to a person with a disability; don’t patronize the person

How are the words “Impairment,” “Disability,” and “Handicap” different?

Each of these words has a distinctly different meaning.  The following are definitions for each:


  • Impairment:  A deviation from normal development, structure or function.  Examples where impairments can occur are:  hearing (nerve damage), visual (glaucoma), mobility (crushed vertebrae causing paralysis).

  • Disability:  Refers to a functional limitation.  Examples of disabilities are:  75% loss of hearing, tunnel vision, or paralysis from the neck down.

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would be when that person can not get into a building because the only entrance has stairs.

What words should I use or avoid when referring to a person with a disability?





























































    Person with a disability     Cripple, Handicap, Invalid
    Person who has…  Person with…     Victim of, stricken with, afflicted with
    Person who uses a wheelchair     Confined to a wheelchair, wheel-bound, restricted
          to a wheelchair
    Person without a disability     Normal (implies that people with disabilities are
    Person who is deaf, hard of hearing or without speech
          who communicates in sign language
    Deaf-mute, deaf and dumb
    Person with mental illness or an emotional disorder     Crazy, insane, deranged
    Person who has seizures     Fits, spastic
    Person who has a congenital disability or a disability
    that has existed from birth
    Birth defect
    Person with mental retardation     Retard, imbecile, moron
    Person who has Down’s Syndrome     Mongoloid
    Person who has Hansen’s Disease     Leper, person with leprosy
    Person who has epilepsy     Epileptic
    Person who has a condition     Disease (unless it is a disease)
    Person who has a cleft lip     Harelip

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    Person who is paralyzed     Invalid or paralytic
    Person who has hemiplegia     Hemiplegic
    Person who has quadriplegia     Quadriplegic
    Person who has paraplegia     Paraplegic
    Person of short stature     Dwarf or midget
    Person who has cerebral palsy     Palsied, or C.P., or spastic

Don’t feel intimidated by the terminology.  If you use simple terms, that’s okay – but remember, simple does not mean childlike.  Speak to or about adults like adults.  People with disabilities are an integral part of the general public.

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  Disability & Communication Access Board