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:

  • paraplegic

Recommended alternatives:

  • person with paraplegia

 

When referring to a person who has four limbs paralysed…

Terms to avoid:

  • quadriplegic

Recommended alternatives:

  • person with quadriplegia

 

When referring to a person of short stature or with a form of dwarfism

Terms to avoid:

  • dwarf
  • midget

Recommended alternatives:

  • person of short stature

 

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

 

When referring to someone who has Down syndrome…

Terms to avoid: 

  • downy
  • mongol(oid)

Recommended alternatives:

  • person with Down syndrome

 

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:

  • hyper
  • hyperactive

Recommended alternatives:

  • person with ADHD

 

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

 

When referring to someone who does not have intellectual, psychosocial or cognitive disability…

Terms to avoid: 

  • normal
  • of sound mind

Recommended alternatives:

  • neurotypical

* 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.

** 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.

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).

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