Appropriate Terminology

When speaking to someone who has a condition that is unfamiliar, people are often wary of saying the wrong thing. To help alleviate some of that uncertainty, here are some general suggestions for speaking to and about people with disabilities. Although each person has her or his own style of communication, these guidelines may assist with interactions.

In referring to people with disabilities, it is preferable to use language that focuses on their abilities rather than their disabilities. Therefore, the use of the terms "handicapped," "able-bodied," "physically challenged," and "differently abled" is discouraged. It may also be helpful to keep the following points in mind when communicating with or about people with disabilities:

  • Never use the article "the" with a specific disability to describe people with that disability. The preferred term, "people with disabilities," stresses the humanity of the individuals and avoids objectification. If it is appropriate to refer to a person's disability, be sure to use the correct terminology for the specific disability.
    Example: NOT "the blind"
    USE "people who are blind"
  • Be wary of implying that people with disabilities deserve to be pitied, feared, or ignored, or that they are somehow more heroic, courageous, patient, or "special" than others who do not have a disability.
  • Never use the word "normal" to refer to people who do not have a disability in contrast to people with disabilities. Use "non-disabled" instead.
    Example: NOT "Jane did as well on the exam as the normal students."
    USE "Jane did well on her exam."
  • Avoid using terms that define a person's disability as a limitation.
    Example: NOT "confined to a wheelchair" or "wheelchair bound"
    USE "wheelchair user" or "uses a wheelchair"
  • Terms such as "victim" or "sufferer" should not be used to refer to people who have a disability or disease as this is dehumanizing and implies powerlessness.
    Example: NOT "AIDS sufferer"
    USE "person with HIV/AIDS"
  • Brown University

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