Within the disability community, people with the same disability often hold intersecting views of their disability as well as identities — across race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion and more. Identities can also be shaped by regional, environmental and generational differences, resulting in different perspectives and preferences related to their disability. All these factors reinforce the common guidance throughout this guide: the most essential guideline is to use language that is preferred by the individual.
In our commitment to fostering a diverse, equitable and inclusive environment, it is important that we strive to represent members of this community in a respectful and authentic way. Below are some basic guiding principles when representing this community.
Do Your Research
Dedicate time to researching and understanding specific conditions or disabilities before writing about them. To reiterate, confirming preferred language is key. For example, some individuals, particularly in the Deaf and neurodiversity communities, do not consider their respective conditions to be disabilities. Beyond the information contained in this guide, you may also reference a curated list of resources below.
Be Aware of ADA Protections
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines an individual with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; a person who has a history or record of such an impairment; or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment. The ADA does not specifically name all the impairments that are covered, but all qualifying impairments are nonetheless covered. The ADA requires that medical information remain confidential. Do not disclose an individual’s disability or medical information without obtaining the individual’s consent first.
Relevance of Mentioning and Asking the Source
Do not mention the person’s disability without the consent of the individual, and only reference the disability when it’s relevant to the story. When a person’s disability is relevant to the story, ask the source which identifier(s) they use. Consider that many stories about people with disabilities are told from the perspective of someone that is not disabled. Whenever possible, include the disabled person’s individual perspective and voice.
Person-First and Identity-First Language Choices
There is ongoing debate about the use of person-first or identity-first language. These terms reflect bigger perspectives and conversations surrounding what disability is and how it relates to personhood. Person-first language focuses on the person before an objective fact — e.g., “person with autism.” The movement towards person-first language was an effort to move directly away from historically offensive phrasing, while affirming humanity.
More recently, a growing number of people within the disability community are using identity-first language. This approach puts the disability first in the phrase — e.g., “autistic person.” For people who prefer identity language/identity-first language, it’s often a form of empowerment and pride.
Again, whenever possible, the best thing to do to empower individuals is to ask them how they would like to be referred to.
Avoid Ableist Language
The National Conference for Community and Justice defines ableism as “the intentional or unintentional discrimination or oppression of individuals with disabilities.” While it’s often used without meaning harm, it’s important to be aware and sensitive to the fact that ableist language devalues disability. When writing or speaking in a conversational tone, this language tends to emerge in everyday language and as figures of speech.
Below are some examples and some alternative suggestions:
unbelievable, unreasonable, outrageous, unreal
bad, awful, boring
not in tune with, oblivious
frustrating, perplexing, confusing
Avoid Descriptions that Connote Pity
Language that connotes weakness or pity should be avoided, such as afflicted with or suffers from. Instead, use language to state the facts in neutral terms. For example, Michael J. Fox has Parkinson’s disease.
Don't Over-Index on Inspiration
Be mindful of the tendency to portray people with disabilities as objects of inspiration. These stories often rely on the underlying assumption that disability is bad, while carrying uplifting messages aimed at non-disabled people. These depictions can ultimately distort understanding of disabilities, perpetuate negative stereotypes and raise false expectations for people with disabilities.
Global Marketing and Communications, 2021. The creation of this guide was done in an inclusive manner, by gathering input from a variety of internal stakeholders from across the University including AccessibleNU, the Office of Equity, Women’s Center, MSA, and the Provost’s office.
Like our society, language is ever evolving. Whenever possible, take the time to learn what specific individuals, disability groups and cultures prefer for themselves. Please note that some terminology that was once widely accepted is now considered offensive. This list below is not meant to be comprehensive but is a starting point on what to avoid.
Terms to Avoid When Writing About People with Disabilities
- Abnormal: The words “abnormal” or “abnormality” are acceptable when describing scientific phenomena, such as abnormalities in brain function. However, avoid using such words to describe a person. Referring to someone who does not have a disability as a “normal person” implies that people with disabilities are deviant or strange. “Typical” can be a better choice.
- Afflicted with: Implies that a person with a disability is suffering or has a reduced quality of life. It is preferable to use neutral language when describing a person who has a disability and simply state the facts about the nature of the disability. For example: “He has muscular dystrophy.”
- Able-bodied: Refers to a person who does not have a disability. The term implies that all people with disabilities lack “able bodies” or the ability to use their bodies well. The term “non-disabled” or the phrase “does not have a disability” or “is not living with a disability” are more neutral choices.
- Confined to a wheelchair: Describes a person only in relation to a piece of equipment designed to liberate rather than confine. It is acceptable to describe an individual as “a person who uses a wheelchair” followed by an explanation of why the equipment is required. Avoid “confined to a wheelchair” or “wheelchair-bound” as these terms describe a person only in relationship to a piece of equipment. The terms also are misleading, as wheelchairs can be liberating for people, allowing them to move about. The terms are also inaccurate, as people who use wheelchairs are not permanently “confined” to them but are transferred to sleep in beds, sit in chairs, drive cars, etc.
- Crazy, insane, nuts, psycho: All are considered offensive and should not be used except in direct quotes. Do not use these words when reporting on mental illness unless they are part of a quote that is essential to the story. (See best practices tab for guidance on ableist language)
- Deaf and dumb/deaf-mute: Avoid these terms as they often are used inaccurately and can be offensive. It is acceptable to refer to someone as deaf or hard of hearing. If possible, ask the person what they prefer. Mute and dumb imply that communication is not possible. Instead, be as specific as possible. If someone uses American Sign Language, lip-reads or uses other means to communicate, state that. When writing about a culturally Deaf individual, capitalize “Deaf” when referring to the person or to Deaf culture.
- Defect, birth defect, defective: Avoid these terms when describing a disability because they imply the person is somehow incomplete or subpar. Instead, state the nature of the disability or injury.
- Epileptic fit: The term seizure is preferred when referring to the brief manifestation of symptoms common among those with epilepsy. Avoid stating that the person had a fit or an epileptic fit. Refer to someone as having epilepsy only if the information is relevant to the story and if the person has been formally diagnosed by a licensed medical professional. Use people-first language, stating that someone “has epilepsy” or “has been diagnosed with epilepsy” rather than referring to him or her as an “epileptic.”
- Loony, loony bin, lunatic: All are considered offensive and should not be used except in direct quotes. Do not use these words when reporting on mental illness unless they are part of a quote that is essential to the story.
- Mentally retarded: Avoid using “retarded” — it is a deeply offensive term. Always try to specify the type of disability being referenced. Otherwise, the term “intellectually disabled” is acceptable. Ask the person which terms they prefer.
- Midget/Vertically Challenged: Only refer to a person’s short stature if it is relevant to the story. It is best to ask people which term they prefer to describe them. Use the term “dwarf” only when applied to a medical diagnosis or in a quote. Avoid the terms “vertically challenged” and “midget.” Dwarfism is a medical or genetic condition that results in a stature below 4 feet,10 inches. Use of the word “dwarf” is considered acceptable when referring to the genetic condition, but it is often considered offensive when used in a non-medical sense. The term “midget” was used in the past to describe an unusually short and proportionate person. It is now widely considered derogatory. The terms “little people” and “little person” refer to people of short stature and have come into common use. Little People of America recommends using the descriptors “short stature,” “little person” or “someone with dwarfism.”
- Paraplegic: Avoid referring to an individual as a paraplegic. Instead, say the person has paraplegia.
- Stricken with, suffers from, victim of: These terms carry the assumption that a person with a disability is suffering or has a reduced quality of life. It is preferable to use neutral language when describing a person who has a disability, simply stating the facts about the nature of the disability. For example: “He has muscular dystrophy” or “he is living with muscular dystrophy.” Avoid characterizing conditions as afflictions.
- Vegetable: Avoid referring to someone as a vegetable or “veg” as such words dehumanize the person. Instead, use person-first language, such as “a person in a vegetative state.”
- Wheelchair-bound: See “confined to a wheelchair” above.
- Association on Higher Education and Disability
- National Center on Disability and Journalism
- Conscious Style Guide
- Ability + Disability
Articles and resources
- Ability + Disability
- American Psychological Association
- APA Style: Disability
Person-first and identity-first language and examples of bias-free language
- APA Style: Disability
- Center for Disability Rights
- Disability Writing & Journalism Guidelines
Guidelines on disability culture, avoiding stereotypes, terms to use/avoid
- Disability Writing & Journalism Guidelines
- ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) Guidelines
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- World Health Organization
- National Conference for Community and Justice
- Northwestern Accessibility Website