Photo from a Be Heard! community workshop session (2018).

Words Matter

Words and how we use them make a difference in the way we describe people and how we relate to them.

Words are important and powerful tools in shaping ideas, perceptions and attitudes.

Words are mirrors of society’s perceptions and attitudes. Some of the most difficult barriers people with disabilities face are other people’s attitudes.

Language use has changed over the years. Disparaging and dated words have been replaced with precise terms which have specific meanings, are not interchangeable and respect people with disabilities.

People often don’t know how to refer to people with disabilities. They may be embarrassed or afraid they might say the wrong thing or they simply may not know the proper words.

General Guidelines:

  • Put the person before the disability.
  • A “disability” is a functional limitation.
  • A “handicap” is an environmental or attitudinal barrier.
  • The word disabled is an adjective not a noun. People are not conditions. Use terms like “people with disabilities” rather than “the disabled”.
  • Use words that are non-judgmental, non-emotional and are accurate descriptions.
  • Do not use trendy euphemisms – expressions such as ‘physically challenged”, “differently abled”, and “special” are generally seen by people with disabilities as patronizing, avoiding reality and inaccurate. Keep to simple language, such as “people with disabilities”.
  • Do not use “victim of”, “suffers from”, “confined to a wheelchair”, or “afflicted”. These terms diminish the person’s dignity and magnify the disability.
  • Avoid labeling people with disabilities as courageous, superhuman, poor or unfortunate.
  • Use: Person with a developmental disability
  • Person who is blind or partially sighted.
  • Person who is Deaf or hard of hearing.
  • Please note that some members of the deaf community consider themselves members of a cultural and linguistic minority group who were born Deaf or became Deaf in childhood and share a common language (American Sign Language). These individuals do not identify or label themselves as persons with a disability. 

The general language that is seen as the most offensive terms include:

Handicapped, Disabled, Impaired and Challenged  

If you remove these terms from your vocabulary as they relate to people with disabilities – you are using respectful language.

The individual with the disability get to choose how they identify – they can use any language covered in the document.

It is the able-bodied community that needs to be respectful of language that is inappropriate, disrespectful and demeaning. Do not correct a person living with a disability if they use language that you have been taught not to use. Simply continue to use the language tools in this document and remain respectful. 

From the North Shore Advisory Committee on Disability Issues document: “Words Matter”
Written by Amy Amantea
Updated: April 10, 2019