Home arrow About Us arrow For The Media arrow Appropriate Terminology
Appropriate Terminology  E-mail

Preferred Terms
Portrayal Issues

The words and images we use to portray people with disabilities reflect our attitudes and beliefs. They can create a positive view of people with disabilities or an insensitive portrayal that reinforces common myths. Using the right words – words that people with disabilities find acceptable, matters.

The following guidelines, compiled by The Life Span Institute, explain preferred terminology and offer suggestions for appropriate ways to describe people with disabilities. These guidelines reflect input from over 100 national disability organizations and has been reviewed and endorsed by media and disability experts throughout North America.

Preferred terms for referring to disabilities (in alphabetical order)

ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is a syndrome of learning and behavioral problems that is not caused by any serious underlying physical or mental disorder and is characterized especially by difficulty in sustaining attention, impulsive behavior, and usually by excessive activity. Do not say hyperactive. Say person with ADHD.

Autism is a mental disorder originating in infancy that is characterized by absorption in self-centered subjective mental activity, especially when accompanied by marked withdrawal from reality, inability to interact socially, repetitive behavior, and language dysfunction. Do not say autistic. Say person with autism.

Blind describes a condition in which a person has loss of vision for ordinary life purposes. Visually impaired is the generic term used by some individuals to refer to all degrees of vision loss. Say boy who is blind, girl who is visually impaired, or man who has low vision.

Brain injury describes a condition where there is long-term or temporary disruption in brain function resulting from injury to the brain. Difficulties with cognitive, physical, emotional, and/or social functioning may occur. Do not say brain damaged. Say person with a brain injury, woman who has sustained brain injury, or boy with an acquired brain injury. 

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, also called chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome, describes a serious chronic condition in which individuals experience six or more months of fatigue accompanied by physical and cognitive symptoms. Do not use terms such as Yuppie Flu, malingering, and hypochondriasis as they are pejorative, imply personality disorders, and are not scientifically supportable. Say person with chronic fatigue syndrome.

Cleft lip describes a specific congenital disability involving the lip and gum. The term hare lip is anatomically incorrect and stigmatizing. Say person who has a cleft lip or a cleft palate. Congenital disability describes a disability that has existed since birth but is not necessarily hereditary. The terms birth defect and deformity are inappropriate. Say person with a congenital disability. 

Deaf refers to a profound degree of hearing loss that prevents understanding speech through the ear. Hearing impaired or hearing loss are generic terms used by some individuals to indicate any degree of hearing loss-from mild to profound. These terms include people who are hard of hearing and deaf. However, some individuals completely disfavor the term hearing impaired. Others prefer to use deaf or hard of hearing. Hard of hearing refers to a mild to moderate hearing loss that may or may not be corrected with amplification. Say woman who is deaf, boy who is hard of hearing, individuals with hearing losses, people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Developmental disability is 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. This includes individuals with mental retardation, cerebral palsy, autism, epilepsy and other seizure disorders, sensory impairments, congenital disabilities, traumatic injuries, or conditions caused by disease (polio, muscular dystrophy, etc.). It may also be the result of multiple disabilities. Say person with a developmental disability.

Disability is a general term used for a functional limitation that interferes with a person's ability, for example, to walk, lift, heal, or learn. It may refer to a physical, sensory, or mental condition. Do not refer to people with disabilities as the handicapped, handicapped persons, or special. Handicap can be used when citing laws and situations, but should never be used to describe a person or disability. Say as a descriptive noun or adjective, such as person living with AIDS, woman who is blind, or man with a disability.

Disfigurement refers to physical changes caused by burns, trauma, disease, or congenital conditions. Do not say burn victim. Say burn survivor, or adult with burns, or child with burns. 

Down syndrome describes a chromosome disorder that usually causes a delay in physical, intellectual, and language development. Usually results in mental retardation. Mongol, Mongoloid, and Downs child/person are unacceptable. Say person with Down syndrome.

Learning disability describes a permanent condition that affects the way individuals take in, retain, and express information. Some groups prefer specific learning disability, because it emphasizes that only certain learning processes are affected. Do not say slow learner, retarded, etc., which are different from learning disabilities. Say person with a learning disability. 

Mental disability The Federal Rehabilitation Act (Section 504) lists four categories under mental disability: psychiatric disability, retardation, learning disability, or cognitive impairment as acceptable terms. Always precede these terms with, "person with..."

Mental retardation refers to substantial intellectual delay that requires environmental or personal supports to live independently. Mental retardation is manifested by below-average intellectual functioning in two or more life areas (work, education, daily living, etc.) and is present before the age of 18. Don't use subnormal or the retarded. Say people with mental retardation. 

back to top

Nondisabled is the appropriate term for people without disabilities. Normal, able-bodied, temporarily able-bodied, healthy, or whole are inappropriate.

Post-polio syndrome is a condition that affects persons who have had poliomyelitis (polio) long after recovery from the disease and that is characterized by muscle weakness, joint and muscle pain, and fatigue. Do not use polio victim. Say person with post-polio syndrome. 

Psychiatric disability: Psychotic, schizophrenic, neurotic, and other specific terms should be used only in proper clinical context and should be checked carefully for medical and legal accuracy. Words such as crazy, maniac, lunatic, demented, schizo, and psycho are offensive and should never be applied to people with mental health problems or anyone else. Acceptable terms are people with psychiatric disabilities, psychiatric illnesses, emotional disorders, or mental disorders.

Seizure describes an involuntary muscular contraction, a brief impairment or loss of consciousness, etc., resulting from a neurological condition such as epilepsy or from an acquired brain injury. The term convulsion should be used only for seizures involving contraction of the entire body. Do not use fit, spastic, or attacks. Rather than epileptic, say girl with epilepsy or boy with a seizure disorder. 

Small/short stature describes people under 4'10" tall. Do not refer to these individuals as dwarfs or midgets, which implies a less than full adult status in society. Dwarfism is an accepted medical term, but it should not be used as general terminology. Say persons of small (or short) stature. Some groups prefer the term "little people."

Speech disorder is a condition in which a person has limited or difficult speech patterns. Do not use mute or dumb. Use child who has a speech disorder. For a person with no verbal speech capability, say woman without speech. 

Spinal cord injury describes a condition in which there has been permanent damage to the spinal cord. Quadriplegia denotes substantial or significant loss of function in all four extremities. Paraplegia refers to substantial or significant loss of function in the lower part of the body only. Say man with paraplegia, woman who is paralyzed, or person with a spinal cord injury.

Stroke is caused by interruption of blood to the brain. Hemiplegia (paralysis on one side) may result. Stroke survivor or person who has had a stroke is preferred over stroke victim. 

Portrayal Issues

Please consider the following when writing about people with disabilities:

Put People First, not their disability. Say woman with arthritis, children who are deaf, people with disabilities. This puts the focus on the individual, not the particular functional limitation. Because of editorial pressures to be succinct, we know it is not always possible to put people first. If the portrayal is positive and accurate, consider the following variations: disabled citizens, nondisabled people, wheelchair-user, deaf girl, paralyzed child, and so on. Crippled, deformed, suffers from, victim of, the retarded, infirmed, the deaf and dumb, etc. are never acceptable under any circumstances. Also, do not use nouns to describe people, such as epileptic, diabetic, etc.

Emphasize Abilities, not limitations. For example: uses a wheelchair/braces, walks with crutches, rather than confined to a wheelchair, wheelchair-bound, differently-abled, birth difference, or crippled. Similarly, do not use emotional descriptors such as unfortunate, pitiful, and so forth. 

Do Not Use Condesending Euphemisms. Disability groups also strongly object to using euphemisms to describe disabilities. Terms such as handicapable, mentally different, physically inconvenienced, and physically challenged are considered condescending. They reinforce the idea that disabilities cannot be dealt with up front.

Do Not Imply Disease when discussing disabilities that result from a prior disease episode. People who had polio and experienced after effects have post-polio syndrome. They are not currently experiencing the disease. Do not imply disease with people whose disability has resulted from anatomical or physiological damage (e.g., person with spina bifida or cerebral palsy). 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 never be referred to as patients or cases unless their relationship with their doctor is under discussion. 

Show People with Disabilities as Active participants of society. Portraying persons with disabilities interacting with nondisabled people in social and work environments helps break down barriers and open lines of communications.

Do Not Focus on Disability unless it is crucial to a story. Avoid tear-jerking human interest stories about incurable diseases, congenital impairments, or severe injury. Focus instead on issues that affect the quality of life for those same individuals, such as accessible transportation, housing, affordable health care, employment opportunities, and discrimination. 

Do Not Portray Successful People with Disabilities as Superhuman or Heroes. Even though the public may admire superachievers, portraying people with disabilities as superstars raises false expectations that all people with disabilities should achieve this level.

Do Not Sensationalize a Disability by saying afflicted with, crippled with, suffers from, victim of, and so on. Instead, say person who has multiple sclerosis.

Do Not Use Generic Labels for disability groups, such as "the retarded," "the deaf." Emphasize people, not labels. Say people with mental retardation or people who are deaf.

Copied with permission from: The Life Span Institute.

Last Updated ( Friday, 06 March 2009 )