A Way with Words for Disability

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A Way with Words for Disability


It is important to maintain natural language when interacting with people with disabilities. Some common usages are encouraged by the World Health Organization. Useful short definitions are:

  • impairment – the functional damage
  • disability – the restriction of normal activities
  • handicap – the resulting social disadvantage

Fuller descriptions are:


This denotes any loss or abnormality of bodily function, whether physiological, psychological or anatomical.

This can include brain lesions, loss of a limb or damage to or malfunction of organs. When speaking of impairment, the accent is on the organic or medical problem.


Generally, a disability is a restriction or lack of ability to perform an activity in a normal manner, resulting from an impairment. The emphasis is on the practical problems faced in the performance of activities.


Handicaps are the social, behavioural and psychological consequences of disabilities. They are the disadvantages facing the individual resulting from an impairment or disability which limits or prevents them from fulfilling a normal social role of someone of their age, sex and culture. The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA) and the Disability Services Act 1986 (DSA) provide the legislative environment in which services to people with disabilities are delivered. Providers of goods and services should be familiar with their provisions.

When talking about people with disabilities, please keep in mind the following guidelines which promote the fair and accurate portrayal of people with disabilities.

In summary:

Avoid stereotypical or stigmatising depictions of people with disabilities.

Avoid phrases and words that demean individuals with disabilities.

Promote the “people first” concept, i.e. not “disabled person” but “person with a disability”.

Portray people with disabilities in the same multidimensional fashion as others.

A Way with Words


Words to Watch

Acceptable Alternative

  • Abnormal, subnormal (negative terms that imply failure to reach perfection)
  • Specify the disability

  • Afflicted with (most people with disabilities don’t see themselves as afflicted)

  • Say “the person has…(the disability)”

  • Birth defect, also congenital defect, deformity

  • Say “the person with a disability since birth”, “person with congenital disability”

  • Blind (the), visually impaired (the)

  • Say “person who is blind”, “person with vision impairment”

  • Confined to a wheelchair, wheelchair-bound (a wheelchair provides mobility not restriction)

  • Say “uses a wheelchair” or is a “wheelchair user”

  • Cripple, crippled (these terms convey a negative image of a twisted,  ugly body. Avoid)

  • Say “has a physical or mobility disability”

  • Deaf (the)

  • Only appropriate when referring to the Deaf community; say “person who is deaf”

  • Deaf and dumb (the inability to hear and speak does not imply  intellectual disability. Avoid)

  • Say “hearing impaired” ; lack of speech usually results an from impaired hearing

  • Defective, deformed (degrading terms. Avoid)

  • Specify the disability

  • Disabled (the)

  • Say “people with a disability”; “the disability community”

  • Epileptic

  • Say “person with epilepsy”

  • Fit, attack, spell

  • Say “seizure”

  • Handicapped (the)

  • Say “person with a disability” unless referring to an environmental or attitudinal barrier, in such cases “person who is handicapped by a disability” is appropriate.

  • Insane (also lunatic, maniac, mental patient, mentally diseased, neurotic psycho, psychotic, schizophrenic, unsound mind and others are derogatory terms. Avoid)

  • Say “person with a psychiatric disability” or a specific condition .

  • Invalid (the literal sense of the word is “not valid”. Avoid)

  • Say “person with a disability”

  • Mentally retarded (also defective, feeble minded, imbecile,  moron and retarded are offensive and inaccurate terms. Avoid)

  • Say “person with an intellectual disability”

  • Mongol (outdated and derogatory)

  • Say “has Down Syndrome”.

  • Patient (only use in context of doctor/patient relationship or in hospital)

  • Say “person with a disability”.

  • Physically/intellectually/vertically challenged,  differently abled, ( ridiculous euphemisms for disability. Avoid)

  • Say “person with a disability”

  • Spastic (usually refers to a person with cerebral palsy or who has uncontrollable spasms. Derogatory, often term of abuse, should never be used as a noun)

  • Say “person with a disability”.

  • Suffers from, sufferer, stricken with (Not all people with disabilities actually suffer. These terms should not be used indiscriminately.)

  • Say “person with a disability”.

Taken from “A Way With Words” (1995), Community Disability Alliance, Department of Families, Youth and Community Care and Department

For More Details:http://www.openroad.net.au/access/dakit/disaware/handout2.htm