Terminology

Ability

The quality of being able to do something

Able-bodied

The term able-bodied should be avoided and is not accurate to describe a person who does not have a disability. Accessible environments and adaptive equipment allow many individuals with disabilities to be able-bodied.

Ableism

The pervasive system of discrimination and exclusion that oppresses people who have mental, emotional and physical disabilities.

Accessible/Accessibility

Refers to the ease of use or participation by a person with a physical disability and is commonly applied to both physical and social contexts. For example physical as well as social barriers can prevent a person with a disability from equal and dignified access to facilities and educational opportunities.

Advocate

A person who represents and speaks on behalf of the person with a disability and/or a special educational need.

Advocacy

A practice carried out by or on behalf of an individual or group, which tries to redress the imbalance of power in society. Advocacy is a powerful tool that individuals with disabilities can use to participate fully in society.

Assistive Technology

This is equipment which supports and enhances the lives of people with physical disabilities, in many cases making fundamental activities such as communication and mobility possible. As with technology in general, assistive technology is changing rapidly and having a significant positive impact on the quality of life for people with disabilities.

Autism

Autism is characterized by indicators such as significant language dysfunction, difficulty interacting socially, and repetitive behaviour. Use the phrase individual with autism. Avoid the term autistic.

Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy is a physical condition affecting the part of the brain which controls movement and posture. This is why people with cerebral palsy cannot control their muscles very well, they may move jerkily or hold themselves awkwardly.
Cerebral palsy can be caused by a number of things such as an illness during pregnancy or a lack of oxygen as a result of complications during birth or as a result of a serious accident or illness after birth. The degree of severity ranges widely. Some people are only mildly affected, taking only a little longer than others to sit up and walk etc. People with a moderate degree of cerebral palsy may require a wheelchair or walking aid for mobility. Some people are affected very severely and can do very little for themselves physically.

Congenital disability

Congenital disability describes a disability that has existed since birth but is not necessarily hereditary.

Cognition

‘Thinking skills’ which underlie a person ability to perceive, attend to and learn from the environment. Cognitive ability, eg problem solving, attention span, memory, is required to learn skills in all areas.

Deaf/hard of hearing

The D/deaf community prefers the term deaf or hard of hearing; "hearing impaired" implies a medical/pathological view. People who are Deaf (big "D" connoting cultural view) view themselves as a linguistic minority.

Deinstitutionalization

A movement that strives to relocate individuals with disabilities from segregated institutional environments to supportive and inclusive community settings.

Developmental disability

Any mental and/or physical disability starting before the age of 22 and continuing indefinitely. It limits one or more major life activities such as self-care, language, learning, mobility, self-direction, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency.

Disability/(Dis)ability/Dis/ability

A social construct that identifies any restriction or lack of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered “typical” for a human being given environments that are constructed for and by the dominant or “typical” person.

Down syndrome

Not Down's syndrome.

Impairment

The physical, mental or sensory characteristic, feature or attribute that affects the function of an individual’s mind or body.

Inclusion

A term that implies that all individuals with a disability, regardless of their ability, are part of typical classrooms, schools, local and world communities.

Mainstream/Mainstreaming

This refers to the complete integration of people with disabilities into the social fabric of their local community. This includes integration in the areas of education and employment as well as in the community's social and cultural life.

Muscular Dystrophy

Muscular dystrophy is marked by a weakening and degeneration of muscle fibre. It is genetic. Although the nerve connections to the fibre remain unimpaired, the muscle is replaced by fatty tissue. Muscular dystrophy is recognised in the first few years of life by weakness and difficulty in getting up from the floor. The diagnosis is confirmed with findings of very elevated muscle enzymes in a blood sample taken by a doctor. The rate of dystrophy varies from person to person.

Spina Bifida & Hydrocephalus

With spina bifida a portion of the spinal cord and its membrane are exposed due to incomplete development of the spine. The severity of spina bifida varies - babies with spina bifida may be paralysed from the waist down. Spina bifida is often associated with hydrocephalus which is a build up of excess fluid in the head.

Wheelchair

Avoid the phrases confined to a wheelchair or wheelchair user. Instead, use phrases such as uses a wheelchair, and other person-first configurations that focus on ability rather than limitations.

Terminology sheet

Avoid these terms

Use these terms

(the) handicapped, (the) disabled person with a disability
cripple, spastic, victim person with a disability
 normal non-disabled person
afflicted by, suffers from, victim of has [name of condition or impairment]
confined to a wheelchair, wheelchair-bound wheelchair user
mentally handicapped, mentally defective, retarded, subnormal with a learning disability (singular) with learning disabilities (plural)
cripple, invalid disabled person
spastic person with cerebral palsy
able-bodied non-disabled
mental patient, insane, mad person with a mental health condition
deaf and dumb; deaf mute deaf, user of British Sign Language (BSL), person with a hearing impairment
the blind people with visual impairments; blind people; blind and partially sighted people
Paraplegic; paraplegic man Man with paraplegia
wheelchair-bound/ confined to a wheelchair wheelchair user/ person who uses a wheelchair
an epileptic, diabetic, depressive, and so on person with epilepsy, diabetes, depression or someone who has epilepsy, diabetes, depression
dwarf; midget someone with restricted growth or short stature
Stroke victim Person who has had a stroke
Is non-verbal; can’t talk Person who uses a communication device; uses an alternative method of communication
He is (a) bipolar; he is (a) manic-depressive He has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder; he is living with bipolar disorder
Burn victim Burn survivor
Unsuccessful suicide Attempted suicide
Committed suicide Died by suicide
Addict, abuser; junkie Person with substance use disorder; person experiencing alcohol/drug problem
Birth defect Congenital disability
Special education student Student receiving special education services
Dwarf, midget A person of short stature or little person
fits, spells, attacks seizures

Recommendations & links

Terminology recommendations

  • Do not use language that portrays the person as passive or suggests a lack of something: victim, invalid, defective. Avoid discriminatory and stigmatising language that puts the emphasis on disability ahead of the person's condition. It is necessary to take special care when choosing the words with which people with disabilities are defined, bearing in mind that language is the tool that conditions the mental representation of any reality. The adjectives substantiated as handicapped, incapable or similar must be avoided in order to overcome the representation of the individual as a "sick person" or a "patient".
  • A person isn’t a disability, condition or diagnosis; a person has a disability, condition or diagnosis. This is called Person-First Language. However, always ask to find out an individual’s language preferences.
  • People with disabilities have different preferences when referring to their disability. Some people see their disability as an essential part of who they are and prefer to be identified with their disability first – this is called Identity-First Language. Others prefer Person-First Language. Examples of Identity-First Language include identifying someone as a deaf person instead of a person who is deaf, or an autistic person instead of a person with autism.
  • Use neutral language.
  • Do not use condescending euphemisms. Terms like differently-abled, challenged, handi-capable or special are often considered condescending.

Research recommendations

Abandoning the charitable/victims approach that traditionally have presented the media, so to focus on overcoming the real obstacles that restrict people with disabilities to live their lives as full citizens.

Recommendations concerning sources

  • Give voice to people with disabilities as independent citizens and protagonists of their own lives. Ending "invisibility" is the first step.
  • People with disabilities can only speak to their own opinions or views – or topics they are an expert in. They have more or less the same insight into other people as anyone. They can speak to certain characteristics of living with their kind of disability, but they don’t have an automatic insight into the thinking of another person with a similar disability.

Content recommendations

  • Create balanced human-interest stories instead of tear-jerking stories. Tear-jerkers about incurable diseases, congenital disabilities or severe injury that are intended to elicit pity perpetuate negative stereotypes.
  • Emphasize abilities, not limitations. Choosing language that emphasises what people can do instead of what they can’t do is empowering.
  • Remember that disability is not an illness and people with disabilities are not patients. People with disabilities can be healthy, although they may have a chronic condition such as arthritis or diabetes. Only refer to someone as a patient when his or her relationship with a health care provider is under discussion.
  • In general, refer to the person first and the disability second. People with disabilities are, first and foremost, people. Labelling a person equates the person with a condition and can be disrespectful and dehumanizing.
  • People with disabilities are experts of their own lives and history. But they can also be experts in any other topic not related to disability at all.
  • Portray successful people with disabilities in a balanced way, not as heroic or superhuman. Do not make assumptions by saying a person with a disability is heroic or inspiring because they are simply living their lives. Stereotypes may raise false expectations that everyone with a disability is or should be an inspiration. People may be inspired by them just as they may be inspired by anyone else. Everyone faces challenges in life.
  • Show people with disabilities as active participants of society. Portraying persons with disabilities interacting with those without disabilities in social and work environments helps break down barriers and open lines of communications.

Ethical recommendations

  • Use a normal tone of voice, don’t patronise or talk down. Never attempt to speak or finish a sentence for the person you are talking to. Address disabled people in the same way as you talk to everyone else.
  • Speak directly to a disabled person, even if they have an interpreter or companion with them.
  • Ask to find out if an individual is willing to disclose their disability. Do not assume that people with disabilities are willing to disclose their disability. While some people prefer to be public about their disability such as including information about their disability in a media articles, others choose to not be publicly identified as a person with a disability.
  • Don’t use descriptions of disabilities to describe shortcomings in other contexts. This doesn’t just go for insults. It also means not to call a highly stubborn person “autistic”.
  • Do not mention someone’s disability unless it is essential to the story. Ask yourself if you would mention a person’s weight or height when not talking about a related topic. The same goes for disabilities.
  • Use language that emphasizes the need for accessibility rather than the presence of a disability.
  • Do not use language that perpetuates negative stereotypes about psychiatric disabilities.
  • People with disabilities are neither asexual nor gender neutral. Anything regarding sexual orientation or identification goes for all human beings.

Bibliography / Links

National Disability Authority (NDA): Appropriate terms to use about disability 

World Confederation for Physical Therapy: Factsheet - Disability Language and Terminology 

GOV.UK: Inclusive language - Words to use and avoid when writing about disability 

National Disability Rights Network (NDRN): Reporting and writing about disabilities 

Americans with disabilities Network (ADA): Guidelines for Writing about People with Disabilities 

ENABLE Ireland Glossary