Practice Areas

The Language of Disability: Top 10 Dos and Don’ts

On Thursday, September 22, 2016, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop led by Christine Bruno, Disability Advocate, and David Harrell, Disability and Program Associate, from Inclusion in the Arts.  A portion of the workshop focused on the language of disability — particularly dos and don’ts — and is a useful tool for workplace inclusion and diversity initiatives as well as equal employment opportunity (EEO) compliance.  Employers, lawyers, and HR professionals: Please consider using these examples in your next workplace training.

  1.  DON’T USE wheelchair-bound/confined to.  DO USE wheelchair user/ uses a wheelchair.
  2. DON’T USE suffers from/afflicted with/crippled by/victim of.  These terms make assumptions about how the disabled person feels about his/her disability. Use “has” and the name of condition (e.g., has cerebral palsy, has paraplegia, etc.).
  3. DON’T USE the disabled/the blind/the deaf.  Always use as an adjective rather than a noun – disabled person, blind filmmaker, deaf man or woman.
  4. DON’T USE retarded (e.g., mentally retarded)/retard.  USE intellectual disability; cognitive disability; developmental disability (when using these terms, however, it is important to understand the distinction among them).
  5. DON’T USE handicapped (handicap).  In general: If you’re not writing about sports, don’t use it! Use disability, disabled person, person with a disability.  Similarly, DON’T USE handicapped parking, restroom, etc.  USE accessible parking, restroom, etc.
  6. DON’T USE midget/dwarf.  DO USE little person. (Dwarf is acceptable only if the person actually has dwarfism.) Keep in mind: Anyone with dwarfism is a little person, but every little person is not a dwarf.
  7. DON’T USE deaf-mute/deaf and dumb/hearing-impaired.  DO USE deaf or hard of hearing.
  8. DON’T USE physically challenged/differently abled.  Avoid outdated or saccharine terms and euphemisms. Use disabled as an adjective (e.g., disabled sportscaster) or person-first language (e.g., person with a disability).
  9. DON’T USE overcoming/inspiring/brave/courageous.  Avoid patronizing and condescending descriptives – describe the person’s accomplishments without value judgment or interpretation.
  10. DON’T USE special/special needs.  Do not use when referring to disabled people.