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Your UCP: National September 11, 2003
Media & Public Awareness

Press Room

Guidelines for Speaking and Writing about People with Disabilities

Positive language empowers. When writing or speaking about people with disabilities, it is important to reflect the individuality, equality or dignity of people with disabilities. When thinking about people with disabilities, think about people first.

Here is a set of guidelines to help you make better choices in terms of language and portrayal. These guidelines offer suggestions for appropriate ways to describe people with disabilities.

  • Focus on the individual, not on his or her disability, which is only one facet of the person. In all cases try to keep the person's disability in proper perspective, without unduly magnifying its importance.
  • Put people first, not their disability. When speaking or writing, say woman with arthritis, children who are deaf, people with disabilities. Crippled, deformed, suffers from, afflicted by, victim of the retarded, infirm, etc., are never acceptable.
  • Emphasize abilities, not limitations. Consider uses a wheelchair or walks with crutches rather than confined to a wheelchair or crippled. Avoid use of inappropriate emotional descriptors such as unfortunate or pitiful.
  • Portray successful people with disabilities as successful people, not super humans. Even though the public may admire super achievers, portraying people with disabilities as superstars raises false expectations that all people with disabilities should achieve at this level.
  • Be accurate in describing disabilities. For example, people who had polio and experience after effects years later have a postpolio disability. They do not have a disease. Reference to disease associated with a disability is acceptable only with chronic diseases, such as arthritis, Parkinson's disease, or multiple sclerosis. People with disabilities should not be referred to as "patients" or "cases" unless the relationship with their doctor is being discussed.

Partial List of Appropriate Terminology
Persons with or who have: People who are:
cerebral palsy blind, visually impaired
Down syndrome deaf, hearing impaired
head injury developmentally disabled
mental illness physically disabled
paraplegia, quadriplegia
partial hearing loss
seizure disorder
specific learning disability
speech impairment


Examples of positive and negative phrases
Positive Phrases Negative Phrases
person who is blind; person who is visually impaired the blind
person with a disability the disabled, handicapped
person who is deaf; person who is hearing impaired or hard of hearing suffers a hearing loss
person who has multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, etc. afflicted by MS, CP victim, stricken by MD
person with developmental disabilities retarded, mentally defective
person with epilepsy, person with seizure disorder epileptic
person who uses a wheelchair confined or restricted to a wheelchair
person without disabilities normal person (implies that person with a disability isn't normal)
congenital disability birth defect
person who has a cleft lip or cleft palate hare lip
Down syndrome mongol or mongoloid
person with a learning disability slow learner, retarded
physically disabled crippled, lame, deformed
unable to speak, uses synthetic speech dumb, mute
seizure fit
successful, productive has overcome his or her disability; courageous (when it implies the person has courage because of having a disability)
person with mental illness, person with psychiatric disability crazy, nuts
person who no longer lives in an institution the deinstitutionalized

Information was compiled by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services from two sources: The President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, and Guidelines to Reporting and Writing About People With Disabilities, produced by the Research & Training Center at the University of Kansas.

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