Disability-Friendly Terminology

Disability-Friendly Terminology

Many people try to use language they think is disability-friendly, but it may actually be disrespectful to the disability community. People-first, disability-friendly terminology is language that does not promote out-dated, insulting or patronizing views of disability and people with disabilities. Many well-meaning, dedicated people inadvertently hold attitudes that are paternalistic or condescending. Misguided language and many prevailing attitudes promote out-dated beliefs that people with disabilities are sick, disadvantaged, needy, and, in general, not like “us”. Some of the nicest people are the most likely to use patronizing language.

In the disability community, it is common to cite a couple of differing philosophies or schools of thought about disability. Most people with disabilities embrace the independent living philosophy which views disability as an inevitable part of life, and which views people with disabilities as a growing population of strong, independent, people with few differences from the rest of the population. The many inconveniences a person with a disability may experience are seen as the only real difference between people with and without disabilities. When it comes to demeaning attitudes or terminology, the disability community recognizes misconceptions in a couple of areas: medical and educational.

Medical Model

The medical model promotes the image of people with disabilities as needing health care or as “sick”. While many people with disabilities do have a predisposition for certain medical conditions, this does not mean they are always sick. Many medical professionals do not realize that people with disabilities are the experts when it comes to understanding their own disabilities. People with disabilities need and appreciate the skill and knowledge of medical professionals. At the same time, they acknowledge the need to self-advocate. While no one would deny the importance of medical professionals and the significance of years of education, nothing compares to the actual experience of living with a disability. Many people with the philosophy of the medical model underestimate the human capacity to learn about the complexities of the human body, and thus to make safe decisions about one’s disability. The independent living philosophy promotes the importance of a team approach to medical treatment.

Educational Model 

Some educational professionals assume the role of “helpful” teacher or parent around people with disabilities. Many seem to underestimate the potential of people with disabilities to function without supports. While it is common to hear people extolling the virtues of independent living, the term is clearly subjective. It is not uncommon for people to describe assisted living programs as “independent living programs”. While supported living is appropriate for some people, most people, regardless of severity of disability, can live independently. People that view disability from an educational perspective often see people with disabilities as needing assistance to become more like the rest of “us”. The problem with this view is that it promotes low expectations of people with disabilities, and assumes unequal relationships.

This philosophy also assumes successful people with disabilities are heroic , inspirational, role-models, and/or courageous. People with disabilities know that they may be courageous as well as cowardly, successful or struggling to become successful, optimistic as well as bitter, just like their counterparts without disabilities. Few want the added responsibility of having to inspire others. Most would be happy to be seen as ordinary, average people with every possibility of success as given any other person in society.


People-first terminology vs. outdated- or nonsensical terms:
Simple, direct terms are accepted by the disability community. When describing people, it is not important to talk about the disability unless you are directly discussing disability related issues. Otherwise, people are described in the same manner in which the so-called able-bodied are described.

Disabled (physically) vs. impaired, wheelchair-bound, handicapped, sick, crippled, afflicted with, suffering from, victims of, lame, sickly:
People that use wheelchairs are not bound to them any more than able-bodied or ambulatory people are shoe-bound. Some wheelchair users can walk for short periods or stand to transfer to a car, bed or chair. People with epilepsy are not epileptics. Epilepsy is not their most defining feature. People with seizure disorders have seizures, not attacks or fits. People with communication barriers are not automatically less intelligent and unable to comprehend language simply because they can not speak clearly. As people with disabilities are not generally ashamed of their disabilities, others need not feel uncomfortable living and working with them, or talking about disabilities in their presence.

Blind vs. visually impaired, sight-impaired:
Though some blind people do read Braille, it is not appropriate to assume that all blind people read Braille. Thanks to new technology, computers can read text in a voice, and can often help people use large print more easily. Very few people have absolutely no sight. Many people can not see well enough to function without a cane or a service dog, but they can see shadows and some light. Calling a blind person sight-impaired implies lack of acceptance of the disability. People with canes and guide dogs do not usually need any assistance, but if assistance seems needed it is important to ask the person first.

Deaf or Hard of Hearing vs. deaf-mute, hearing-impaired:
Deafness ranges from profound to mild. Few people hear no sounds at all. Most people hear certain decibels of sound or very loud sounds but they can not discriminate speech or hear most of the sounds around them. Some people actually have fluctuating hearing. Thus they can hear things on one day they may not catch on another. Children in particular are often wrongly described as having selective hearing if they communicate better on one day than another.

Deaf people are not “mute.” Some deaf people have verbal skills and others chose to communicate manually. The language of the Culturally Deaf is ASL (American Sign Language). Though most do use ASL, it is not always appropriate to assume a certain mode of communication for every deaf person. Most deaf people can sign. Some people years ago were discouraged from, or even forbidden to sign. A small percentage of people never did learn to sign and were not participants in Deaf Culture.

Not all deaf people speak English and ASL. Profoundly deaf people, raised within the core deaf culture may not use English at all. English and ASLare not similar. ASL, which originated in France, is more similar to French or to Russian than it is to English. ASL, like all languages, has its own grammar, syntax and idioms. To many deaf people for whom ASL is their first language, English terms and English grammar can be confusing. Misinterpretations are common between the two languages. It is inappropriate to assume that Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing people can all read lips. Many people rely on a combination of communication aids and may prefer to use pen and paper.

Hard-of-Hearing and Late-deafened people view hearing loss in various ways. Some Late-deafened people have more difficulty than others adjusting to hearing loss. They may view the changes in hearing ability as an impairment or they might adjust completely with the changes, relying on ASL and adaptive equipment to communicate.

Some people find themselves obsessing about hearing loss and trying to “fix” it with hearing aids and medical intervention (the Medical Model). Others concentrate on living happily with the changes whether or not they can use hearing aids, rather than focusing on correcting hearing. Deaf Culture attributes misinterpretations and misunderstandings about deafness to the “Hearing” culture. Deaf, Hard-of-Hearing people that are not sensitive to Deaf Culture and Deaf Awareness are described by many deaf persons as “Hearing-in-the Head.” Most deaf people are proud of their deafness (cultural status) which explains why Deaf and Deaf Culture are written as proper names. None of the above guidelines and preferences are meant to segregate, but rather to promote deafness as a fact, not as a tragedy or as an illness.

Mental Illness by diagnosis:
Described in terms such as schizophrenia or manic-depressiveness, not by symptom such as manic, psychotic, dangerous, sick, aggressive, suicidal. One may be described as having Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, not as “panicked” or “agitated”. People with mental illness may have periods when they do feel suicidal or they may become delusional intermittently, but it is rarely a permanent condition. The same holds true for aggressive and dangerous people. Most often such symptoms can be treated. People with mental illnesses are not always sick or symptomatic. Even those that have been hospitalized should not be labeled “mental patients.” In many cases, reactions and perceptions of others can exacerbate symptoms of mental illness. The stigma of mental illness makes it hard for people with this disability to gain the respect necessary to effectively fight misconceptions.

Cognitive DisabilitiesL
Cognitve disabilities refers to a wide variety of people include people with learning disabilities, brain injury, and intellectual disabilities. The latter term has in recent years replaced the phrase “mental retardation”, a term that was demeaning. Not all people with cognitive disabilities have the same type of disability. It is easier to address the disability in terms of learning style. Everyone can learn; we simply learn at different speeds and in different styles. People with cognitive disabilities should not be labeled according to behaviors and symptoms (e.g., rigidity, compulsiveness, spasticity) unless necessary for a medical evaluation or similar report (e.g., a doctor noting a person has spasms and does not have expressive verbal language). Otherwise, people are not “spastic”. It is a symptom, as yawning is to tiredness. When in doubt about how to best define such a disability, it is best to ask to the person how he or she wishes to be viewed.

Why is terminology so important?
While terminology is important in shaping viewpoints, attitudes are even more important. Most people with disabilities are less offended by occasional outdated terminology than by obvious paternalistic or patronizing attitudes. Interactions with others that do not include pity or paternalistic, patronizing attitudes are appreciated by those active in the Disability Rights Movement. Sincere respect and equality are easily recognized and empowerment is beneficial to all.

Everyone is affected by pejorative language and misconceptions! As our population ages, more people will be affected by one or more disabilities, forcing us to personally face the attitudes and the perceptions we have ignored, promoted, or created. If we work now to promote acceptable language and to recognize the civil rights of people with all types of disabilities, we will be insuring a better future for all of us.

Resources for Disability Friendly Language:

Publications that may be helpful to better understand the viewpoint of persons with disabilities and the Disability Rights Movement:

As usual, there are no easy answers, but sorting out the best information on terminology may prove easier with some of the above sources. Most independent living centers offer disability awareness to promote quality language and accurate portrayal of persons with disabilities in the media and in conversation.

Disability Etiquette Links:

Disability Etiquette Tips for Speaker Engagements / Job Accommodation Network (download)

United Spinal Association Disability Etiquette Publications 

San Antonio Disability  Etiquette Handbook

Fact Sheet last updated on: 7/1/2024


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