Re-printed December 2015
You can also download the PDF version of this publication. Hard copies are available upon request by calling 614-466-5205.
It’s easy to get trapped in language habits. Remember how people used
to use the term mailman, or businessman? Or use the word girl to
describe a woman?
Our country has progressed socially and ethically. Today, Americans
lean toward describing differences in accurate ways that convey
- Recognize a person’s right to self-esteem—a person’s right to be
thought of first as a person
- Tell the truth without being judgmental
- Don’t mention disabilities if they have nothing to do with the story
By the time you finish reading this brochure, you should be able to
identify new language habits that you need to work on when describing
people with disabilities.
Some people polarize at extreme ends of the people-first language issue.
On one side, there are those who believe it represents an unneeded
infringement on tradition and freedom of expression; and on the other
side, some continually invent new descriptions they hope could not
possibly offend anyone. The latter group rallies for use of words as
handicapable, physically challenged, and mentally different.
A moderate approach that is shared by many advocates and disabilityrelated
organizations is built on these two points:
- Be accurate
- Put the person first in word and thought
Putting the person first means treating others as you would want to
be treated. When communicating, it goes one step further; it means
that whenever possible, mention the person first, and follow it with any
necessary description of a disability.
Say, the woman who is blind instead of the blind woman. In other
words, the person is first a person and second a person with a
disability. And just as it isn’t always necessary to convey the color of a
person’s hair, it also is not always necessary to mention that a person
has a disability.
Except for items in [brackets] the terms in this brochure are reprinted with permission from Guidelines for Reporting and Writing About People With Disabilities, third ed., 1990,
© University of Kansas, published by The Research & Training Center on Independent
Living, Lawrence, KA. Media and disability experts around the U.S. endorse this list.
Handicap or disability?
It is easy to confuse handicap and disability. Use disability when
you refer to a person with a disability. Don’t use handicapped. A
disabling condition may or may not be handicapping. For example,
a person who is blind has a physical disability. This person is
handicapped when he or she does not know which room to enter
because the door signs are readable only by sight.
Describes a condition in which a person has loss of vision for
ordinary life purposes. Visually impaired is the generic term
preferred by some individuals to refer to all degrees of vision loss.
Use boy who is blind, girl who is visually impaired, or man who
has low vision.
Describes a condition where there is temporary or long-term
interruption in the brain functioning. Use people with a brain
injury, people who have sustained brain damage, woman who
has traumatic brain injury, or boy with a closed head injury.
Describes a disability that has existed since birth but is not
necessarily hereditary. The terms birth defect and deformity are
inappropriate. Say person with a congenital disability.
Refers to a profound degree of hearing loss that prevents understanding
speech through the ear. Hearing impaired is the generic
term preferred by some individuals to indicate any degree of
hearing loss—from mild to profound. It includes both hard of
hearing and deaf. [The National Association of the Deaf has
adopted the terms “deaf ” and “hard of hearing” instead of the term
hearing impaired.] Hard of hearing refers to a mild to moderate
hearing loss that may or may not be corrected with amplification.
Use woman who is deaf or boy who is hard of hearing.
Approximately two of every one hundred Americans have a
developmental disability. The federal government and Ohio define a
developmental disability as a severe, chronic disability of a person that:
- Is attributable to a mental or physical impairment or combination
of mental and physical impairments
- Is manifested before a person reaches age 22
- Is likely to continue indefinitely
- Results in substantial functional limitations in three or more of
the following areas of major life activity: self-care; receptive and
expressive language; learning; mobility; self-direction; capacity of
independent living; and economic self-sufficiency
- Reflects the person’s need for combination and sequence of special
interdisciplinary or genetic care, treatment or other services that
are lifelong or extended duration and are individually planned and
General term used for functional limitation that interferes with a person’s
ability, for example, to walk, lift, hear, or learn. It may refer to a physical,
sensory, or mental condition. Use man with a disability or children who
have disabilities. Impairment refers to loss or abnormality of an organ or
body mechanism that may result in disability.
Describes a chromosomal disorder that usually causes some delays in
physical, intellectual and language development. The occurrence of
Down syndrome is not related to race, socioeconomic level, or parental
intelligence. Mongol and mongoloid are unacceptable terms. Use
person with Down syndrome.
Not a synonym for disability. Describes a condition or barrier imposed
by society, the environment, or by one’s own self. Handicap can be used
when citing laws and situations, but should not be used to describe a
disability. Say the stairs are a handicap for her.
Describes a permanent condition that affects the way individuals
with average or above-average intelligence take in, retain, and express
information. Some groups prefer specific learning disability, because
it emphasizes that only certain learning processes are affected. Do not
say slow learner, retarded, etc. Use has a learning disability.
The Federal Rehabilitation Act (Section 504) lists four categories
under mental disability: psychiatric disability, retardation, learning
disability, and (physical) head trauma. Use these four terms for
specific instances; otherwise, mental disability or cognitive
impairment is acceptable.
Words such as crazy, maniac, lunatic, demented, and psycho are
offensive and should never be applied to people with mental health
problems. Psychotic, schizophrenic, neurotic, and other specific
terms should be used only in proper context and checked carefully
for medical and legal accuracy. Acceptable terms are people with
emotional disorders, psychiatric illness, mental problems, or
Appropriate term for people without disabilities. Normal, ablebodied,
healthy, and whole are inappropriate. [Many advocates
and organizations simply prefer to use the term people without
Describes involuntary muscular contraction, a brief impairment or
loss of consciousness, etc., resulting from a neurological condition,
such as epilepsy. Rather than epileptic, say girl with epilepsy or
boy with a seizure disorder. The term convulsion should be used
only for seizures involving contraction of the entire body.
Do not refer to people under 4’10” as dwarfs or midgets. Use
person of small (or short) stature. Dwarfism is an accepted
medical term, but it should not be used as general terminology.
Spinal cord injury
Describes a condition in which there has been permanent damage
to the spinal cord. Quadriplegia denotes substantial or total loss of
function in all four extremities. Paraplegia refers to substantial or
total loss of function in the lower part of the body only. Say man
with paraplegia or woman who is paralyzed.
To Our Friends in the Media
We believe in the positive values of “people first” language, and we
ask respectfully that you use it.
In the area of disabilities, people first language means to emphasize
the person rather than the disability. For example, say “Mary Able,
who uses a wheelchair…” instead of, “The wheelchair-bound Mary
Able…” Notice that the preferred statement mentions Mary first.
Additionally, saying that a person is “confined” or “bound” to
a wheelchair emphasizes limitations and is often incorrect (for
example, many people who use wheelchairs sometimes use
crutches, canes or walkers).
Most people with disabilities are healthy. Therefore, it is less than
accurate to stereotype them as victims or as being afflicted or
stricken. In fact, most people with disabilities would prefer their
disability not be mentioned if it has nothing to do with the story.
We encourage you to try not to use the “E-D” words preceded by
“the.” Examples of this are “the disabled” and “the cerebral palsied.”
Instead, say “people who have a disability” and “people who have
Some terms and expressions used to describe disabilities are
incorrect or judgmental. For example, what used to be called
mongolism is now called Down syndrome, and the words
“crippled” and “suffers from” are judgmental.
People without disabilities sometimes look up to those with
disabilities as having great courage and endurance. We urge you not
to mention such thoughts in your stories as you take into account
the feelings of the person with the disability. Most people with
disabilities want to be thought of as ordinary people.
Thank you for respecting the dignity of the more than 53 million
Americans who have disabilities.
If you have questions about person first language or using the
appropriate word to describe a disability, please call: 614-466-5205.
Person First Awareness
It’s up to all of use to make the public aware of person-first language. If
you represent an agency or organization providing services or support
to people with disabilities, duplicate the back of this brochure onto
your organization’s letterhead and distribute it to the local news media
and public relations people in your area. Include a contact person’s
name and phone number at the bottom of the page.
- Emphasize abilities instead of limitations. Say uses a
wheelchair instead of “confined to a wheelchair.”
- A disability is a condition, not a disease. Therefore,
it is inaccurate to speak of a person with a disability
as a “patient” unless you are recounting the person’s
- If you are unsure about how to describe a disability, ask
someone who knows—for example, ask the person who
has the disability.
- Describe people without disabilities as people without
- Be accurate, and put the person first in word and
For copies of this brochure or more information about people with disabilities, contact the Ohio Developmental Disabilities Council at 899 East Broad Street, Suite 203, Columbus, OH 43205 or by phone at 614-466-5205.
The publication was funded by the Ohio Developmental Disabilities Council under the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act.