Disability language guide

Advice on using respectful language when talking about disability, and how to talk to people with disabilities.

Using respectful disability terminology and language

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.

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 and the Acceptable alternatives


Avoid ‘normal person’ – use ‘Person without a disability’


Avoid ‘disabled’, ‘handicapped’, ‘invalid’, ‘special needs’, ‘defected’, ‘deformed’ – use ‘Person with a disability’


Avoid ‘paraplegic’, ‘quadriplegic’  –  use ‘person with paraplegia’, ‘person with quadriplegia’


Avoid ‘confined to a wheelchair’, ‘wheelchair bound’ – use ‘Uses a wheelchair’


Avoid ‘cripple’, ‘physically challenged’ – use ‘physical disability’


Avoid ‘dumb’ –  use ‘Non-verbal’


Avoid ‘dwarf’, ‘midget’, ‘little person’, ‘vertically challenged’ – use ‘short-statured person’


Avoid ‘insane’, ‘lunatic’, ‘maniac’, ‘mental patient’, ‘mental’, ‘psycho’, ‘psychopath’, ‘crazy’, ‘skitzo’ – use ‘person with a mental illness’


Avoid ‘retarded’, ‘tard’, ‘moron’, ‘intellectually challenged’ – use ‘person with an intellectual disability’


Avoid ‘mongol’, ‘mongoloid’, ‘mong’, ‘downsy’ – use ‘person with Down syndrome’


Avoid ‘spastic’, ‘spaz’  – use ‘person with a disability’ or ‘person with cerebral palsy’


Avoid Institution  – use ‘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.