Disability language guide - House with No Steps

Disability language guide

Above all, speak to a person with a disability just as you would anyone else - with respect!

Advice on using respectful disability terminology and language, and how to talk to people with disabilities

Disability language guide

When a person has a disability, it doesn’t define who they are. Each person with a disability is a unique individual with their own personality, interests, and skills.

Using respectful disability terminology and language

Some words that are used to describe people with a disability which were perhaps learnt while growing up, can be hurtful to a person.

Here are some of the right and wrong ways of talking about a person with a disability.

Words to avoid  Acceptable alternatives 
Normal person Person without a disability
Disabled, handicapped, invalid, special needs, defected, deformed
Person with a disability
Paraplegic, quadriplegic Person with paraplegia, person with quadriplegia
Confined to a wheelchair, wheelchair bound Uses a wheelchair
Cripple, crippled, physically challenged Physical disability
Dumb Non-verbal
Dwarf, midget, little person, vertically challenged Short-statured person
Insane, lunatic, maniac, mental patient, mental, psycho, psychopath, crazy, demented, skitzo Person with a mental illness
Retarded, tard, moron, intellectually challenged Person with an intellectual disability
Mongol, mongoloid, mong, downsy Person with Down syndrome 
Spastic, spaz Person with a disability, person with cerebral palsy
Institution Mental health clinic

How to talk to people with disabilities

When you’re talking with a person who has a disability, just be yourself. Make sure you:

  • Establish and maintain eye contact
  • Talk directly to the person - don’t talk to their companion instead
  • Never speak about the person as if they can’t understand or respond
  • Don’t assume a person can’t do things
  • Don’t talk about 'fixing' or 'making the person better'. They might feel fine!
  • Ask someone first before offering help - they may not need it!
  • Don't pat or talk to a guide dog or service animal - these animals are working so shouldn’t be distracted
  • Don’t assume a person with a disability has other disabilities. Eg, someone who has low vision can still hear you, there is no need to shout. 
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