Disability Terminology

An individual is considered to have a disability if that individual either:
  • Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, or working.
  • Has a record of such an impairment, or...
  • Is regarded as having such an impairment.
  • Major life activity also includes the operation of major bodily functions...

People with disabilities prefer that you focus on their individuality, not their disability. The term "handicapped" has fallen into disuse and should be avoided. The terms "able-bodied," "physically challenged" and "differently abled" are also discouraged. The following are some recommendations:

Never use the article 'THE' with an adjective to describe people with disabilities.

The preferred usage, 'people with disabilities,' stresses the essential humanity of individuals and avoids objectification. Alternatively, the term "disabled people" is acceptable, but note that this term still defines individuals as disabled, first, and people second.

Use: People who are deaf
Not: the deaf
Use: People who are visually impaired
Not: the visually impaired
Use: People with disabilities
Not: the disabled


To refer to a person's disability, choose the correct terminology for the specific disability.

The following terms are examples of appropriate terms to describe people with disabilities.

People who are: blind, visually impaired, deaf, hard of hearing. People with, or who have: Cerebral Palsy, mental illness, paraplegia, quadriplegia, partial hearing loss, seizure disorder, specific learning disability, speech impairment.

Be careful not to imply that people with disabilities are to be pitied, feared or ignored, or that they are somehow more heroic, courageous, patient or 'special' than others. Never use the term 'normal' in contrast.

Use: Trina qualified for her 'Swimmer' certificate.
Not: Trina held her own while swimming with normal children.

A person in a wheelchair is a 'wheelchair user' or 'uses a wheelchair.' Avoid terms that define the disability as a limitation such as 'confined to a wheelchair' or 'wheelchair-bound." A wheelchair liberates; it doesn't confine.

Never use the terms 'victim' or 'sufferer' to refer to a person who has had a disease or disability. This term dehumanizes the person and emphasizes powerlessness.

Use: person with HIV/AIDS
Not: victim of AIDS or AIDS sufferer.

Use: had polio
Not: polio victim

(From Campus Guidelines for Using Inclusive Language and Illustrations in University Publications-University of Maryland at College Park.)


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