How to talk about disability

We recommend referring to ‘people with intellectual disability’ rather that ‘intellectually challenged’ or ‘mentally retarded’.

We recommend using ‘people with psychosocial disability’ to refer someone living with a mental illness. We avoid pejorative terms like ‘crazy’, ‘mad’ or ‘insane’.

Generally, we also urge to refer to ‘people with Down syndrome’ instead of ‘Mongol”, to ‘people with cerebral palsy’ instead of ‘spastic’, to ‘people with autism’ instead of ‘autistic people ’, to ‘people with ADHD’ instead of ‘hyperactive’, to ‘people with brain injury’ instead of ‘brain damaged people ’, to ‘people with learning disability’ instead of ‘slows’, to ‘people with paraplegia’ instead of ‘paraplegic people ’, etc.

We only use the word ‘blind’ when the person is fully blind. Otherwise, ‘person with a visual impairment’ or ‘person with vision impairment’ is preferred.

People are not victims either. We do not use expressions like ‘suffers from depression’, but to refer instead to a ‘person living with depression’.

Equally, we recommend not using the expression ‘confined to a wheelchair’. A wheelchair is not confining, it provides great mobility to people who can’t walk. A person ‘uses a wheelchair’ or is a ‘wheelchair user’.

We avoid phrases like ‘disabled toilet’ or ‘disabled parking space’. The toilet or parking space is not disabled (ie broken)! Use ‘accessible toilet’ or ‘accessible parking space’.

We recommend using ‘person without disability’ rather than ‘sighted’, ‘hearing’, ‘able-bodied’, ‘normal’, ‘healthy’, etc.

We advocate against the use patronising of language, describing people as ‘brave’ or ‘special’ just because they live with disability.

The word ‘carer’ should be reserved for the ‘family’ of a person with disability who provide unpaid support. Workers who provide care and get paid for it, should be referred to as support workers, care workers, disability workers, disability staff, assistants or attendants. We use a  ‘person first language’ in all written and verbal communication which means we acknowledge the person before their disability. A person’s disability should not be unnecessarily focused on.

General Guidelines for Talking about Disability[1]

  • Put the person first. Say “person with disability” rather than “disabled person.” Say “people with disability” rather than “the disabled.” A person isn’t defined by their disability – they are a person before anything else.
  • Be aware that many people with disability dislike euphemistic terms like “physically challenged” and “differently abled.” Say “wheelchair user,” rather than “confined to a wheelchair” or “wheelchair bound.” The wheelchair is what enables the person to get around and participate in society; it’s liberating, not confining.
  • When talking about places with accommodations for people with disability, 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.
  • Use the term “disability” and take the following terms out of your vocabulary when talking about or talking to people with disability.  Don’t use the terms “handicapped”, “differently-abled”, “cripple”, “crippled”, “victim”, “retarded”, “stricken”, “poor”, “unfortunate” or “special needs.”
  • Just because someone has a disability, it doesn’t mean he/she is “courageous”, “brave”, “special” or “superhuman.”  People with disability are the same as everyone else.  It is not unusual or unique for someone with disability to have talents, skills and abilities.
  • Avoid emotive portrayals of people which imply they are to be pitied for living with such a ‘tragedy’ or that they ‘suffer’ from, are ‘afflicted’ with or are a ‘victim’ of disability. The reality is that for many people with disability, it is just a fact of life and not something to be dramaticised or sensationalised.
  • It is okay to use words or phrases such as “disabled,” “disability” or “people with disability” when talking about disability issues.  Ask the people you are with which term they prefer if they have disability.
  • When talking about people without disability, it is okay to say “people without disability.”  But do not refer to them as “normal” or “healthy.”  These terms can make people with disability feel as though there is something wrong with them and that they are “abnormal.”
  • When in doubt, call a person with disability by his/her name.


[1] Based on Source: (c) 2006 “Respectful Disability Language: Here’s What’s Up!” was co-written by the National Youth Leadership Network (NYLN), and Kids as Self Advocates (KASA)