How To Correctly Refer To People With Disability

How To Correctly Refer To People With Disability
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For those considerate souls who are interested in referring to people with disability in a modern, acceptable way, the People With Disability organisation has released a document which makes things easy by laying out some clear guidelines. It’s called the Guide to Reporting Disability, but obviously it’s not limited to reporters.

People with disability picture by Shutterstock

The “proper” way of referring to various groups is always evolving. Part of that is because people start using terms with an official capacity like “retarded” or “spastic” as an insult, which is a shame. It can be hard sometimes to keep up with it. So it’s a good thing documents like this are being released by advocates, and if a relatively tiny bit of effort can be spent on my part to make someone feel better, it’s worth doing.

A few highlights of the document:

Put the person first. Say “person with disability” rather than “disabled person.” Say “people with disability” rather than “the disabled.” A person isn’t defined by their disability – they are a person before anything else.

It is okay to use words or phrases such as “disabled,” “disability” or “people with disability” when talking about disability issues.  Ask the people you are with which term they prefer if they have disability. When talking about people without disability, it is okay to say “people without disability.”  But do not refer to them as “normal” or “healthy.”  These terms can make people with disability feel as though there is something wrong with them and that they are “abnormal.”

When talking about places with accommodations for people with disability, use the term “accessible” rather than “disabled” or “handicapped.”  For example, refer to an “accessible” parking space rather than a “disabled” or “handicapped” parking space.

Just because someone has a disability, it doesn’t mean he/she is “courageous”, “brave”, “special” or “superhuman.”  People with disability are the same as everyone else.  It is not unusual or unique for someone with disability to have talents, skills and abilities.

Obviously words like “retard” are best avoided. As someone who knows someone with serious mental illness, and not even that closely, that word makes me cringe a bit. Though People With Disability recommends going a step further and steering clear of words like “crazy” or “nuts” when referring to someone with mental illness.

You can download the guide here. For some reason it wants to open in Internet Explorer on my machine – random – but it’s a normal doc file.


  • Sorry, but what a load of politically correct rot. Call a spade a spade. Stop encouraging people to get upset at every little thing. Am sure that sort of thing contributes to some people becoming depressed and sad and thinking the world owes them.

      • you are welcome to call me retarded, 66biscuits; I take no offence. I actually do have a disability (although not that one), and also a son with one. My comment is based on my experience over 40+ years, and seeing how so many disabled people fall into the “poor me” trap; something that seems to have got so much worse over the past 20 years or so. 30 years ago, every single person I knew who also had my particular disability, had a job, unless they were of retirement age or were looking after their children. Today, so many of them are on welfare, even though they are well short of retirement age.

        • Cool, I’m glad you’re OK with that. The point I’m trying to make is that it just levels the playing field in using phrases that doesn’t raise too much ire. Just because you are OK with that term doesn’t mean I can use it. My dad has dealt with the effects of polio for 60 years and he calls himself a cripple, but that doesn’t mean he or I get the right to call anyone else that. I accept your point that some people will fall into self pity, language may have a small part to play in it.

          • it does, but these days it just goes too far. It’s amazing anyone can even have a conversation given the number of rules we have to follow.

            Also cripple sounds like an odd word today, but what makes it inherently worse that “leg impaired” or whatever the correct word is. Surely context, tone and intent are much more important.

      • That is a very clever comment!! Clever use of wording.
        I have a family member with mental health issues. Most of what was said in the article is spot on.
        If possible, try to think of people with issues as you would any other person – except with a limitation where they may need understanding.
        It won’t be a surprise that I totally reject special treatment (even for my own family member). Just treat them with respect and empathy. I try to think of a person permanently in a wheelchair as like a person with a broken leg…. And especially, don’t do stunts like what Google Australia is doing with gender. Let people get there on qualifications and experience. The notion of special treatment beyond basic courtesy is discriminatory and insulting.

      • I got adhd aspergers and brain damage, my fiance works in the disability and thinks this is a load of hogwash. Trying to hard to not offend disabled people actually annoys us. It’s pandering and a form of humiliation. Brutal honesty and approaching the issue directly instead of skirting around it and calling a tomato an apple becuase it’s all fruit is a lack of empathy.

        • I agree that there is a backfire effect with trying too hard. Get on with what we’re supposed to be doing, make the communication as clear as possible and don’t make a big deal out of things; how all people should work together regardless of dis/ability.
          Everybody wants their dignity, that includes being given credit for having enough strength to live their own life.
          By the way, I refer to people without a mental illness as “the undiagnosed”

        • could not agree more with you. I believe that if people are genuinely empathy towards one another, people feel that. it is not a matter of wording at all. for me, it is just a disguise for some people. Disabled people and people with disability are exactly the same no matter what.

    • You need to work on your comprehension skills.

      The entire point of the article is that calling a “person with a disability” a “disabled person” is more like “calling a spade a broken club”.

    • Add some profanity and personal insults and you could be in the running to maintain the Linux kernel.

    • This advice comes directly from People with Disability Australia. I reckon their opinion on this topic might hold more weight than yours.

      • Disabled here, mostly brain scarring that affects memory and a sharp drop in intelligence caused from a car crash that someone else caused. Went from genius to just below average overnight and I often find organisations like that will try to avoid the real issues. Aside from not calling people retarded or brain dead or over derogatory name the majority of the truly disabled (so not just Johnnie with adhd who refuses to eat right and Frankie with borderline aspergers that has learnt self control) have no problems with order of wording. you’ll find other ones offended by these kinds of distinctions are the general public criticising workers or Frankie and Johnnie who have a shot at normality if they just focused.

        I like your articles and you’re on my list of always clicks, but I would definitely recommend getting in contact with your local disability community outreach centre, and maybe interview a few of the “service users” (cause again someone decided calling us clients was demeaning) and the support staff. You would definitely be surprised how many of us hate the rampant. Political correctness telling us how we should be happy with what they think we should now be called.

        *will add I’m remote NT and so the views of myself and other clients might honestly be the opposite of others in the cities but I’d still love to read an article of your experiences meeting a group of us in a centre designed and built around us getting out into the community and building exposure.

        • I work at a disability support organisation in a city. In my experience (admittedly not huge, I’m mostly just IT) most people aren’t bothered. As with most topics there’s a small group who skew towards each extreme of the issue while the majority sit somewhere in the middle.

          Given that scenario, when you’re writing about people with disability you get a choice: you can use language that will make a minority think you’re too politically correct, or you can use language that a minority considers belittling, insulting, or exclusive. Most people will go for the lesser of two evils.

          And yeah, the level of formality can be annoying, but it shows that the person has at some point stopped and considered how a person with disability might feel about the language they use. that’s kind of important.

          (This started off as a reply to you, and devolved into a general comment. Sorry about that)

        • Well Jaedee, unless someone else penned this for you, there has been no drop in intelligence at all – I think there has been too much PC in how we refer to anyone with a disability as they [the disability itself] are so varied and far reaching, be it a damaged knee requiring special access parking through to the ABI, I work for an RTO training people in C3 & 4 Disability and it is becoming increasingly more difficult to procure the suitable carer who isn’t scared off by all the information and ideas being bandied around about terminology etc. Sometimes the medical terms are seen as derogatory but are the correct terminology. There are some in our community who are so disabled that they cant be classified as anything else and no amount of rehabilitation and education will make any difference at all- as sad as this it is a fact.

  • How about “fucked in the head”? You didn’t mention that one so I figure its ok?

    • As a person that suffers from a whole collection of serious mental illnesses, I’m confused as to why anyone would in any way associate the term retard with them, considering that mental illness and developmental disorders are not even close to the same thing. “Fucked in the head” however,is perfectly acceptable nomenclature, at least to me. Its hard to consider a mind that produces psychotic symptoms as operating anywhere near 100%.

      Unless of course its really running a bit ahead of the curve, in which case I have some bad news for everyone…..

    • I know many with that problem- usually self inflicted but some are from a poor upbringing and it is sad.

  • I know quite a few disabled people of all sorts of caliber. What you call people is a bit of a side issue, what they really want is a job that pays actually money instead of permission to leave the house and good feelings.

    • ive worked with people with polio, in wheelchairs and many autistics (autism and IT go hand in hand, OCD, social impairment etc).
      Maybe we travel in different circles?

  • As someone with a physical disability, I don’t really care whether people say I’m a disabled person, or a person with a disability. The thing that bugs me the most, is when people assume that just because I have a physical disability also means I have a mental disability and treat me like a child etc.

  • “Accessible” parking space doesn’t make any sense for differentiating between one that should be reserved for a person with a disability – and one that is simply accessible.

    • I though the same thing – until my wife, who works in the sector, pointed out that “disabled parking” infers that the parking space itself has a disability. “Accessible parking” infers that the parking can be accessed easily and so is useful for those people who require additional width in their spot to adequately get in or our of their vehicle or who are unable to walk long distances or traverse stairs.

  • In a few years “accessible” will be demeaning too. Retarded, mongoloid, cretin, handicapped, spastic were never derogatory to begin with. We made it so. Name changing is not going to change the demonising of one part of the community. No idea why we need to make people outcasts to make ourselves feel better but it simply what we do. Just wait until hopefully we evolve into something more tolerant.

  • I agree we have become far too politically correct and remove the humanity from who people are its all about respect for each other our carers, family and those around us as friends. When we respect people then what one is called or treated is irrelevant,

  • But if the majority of people don’t have a disability. Then not having one is normal and not trying to be deliberately insulting but sounds it none the less. If you have a disability there is something wrong with you. It is not normal for your legs not to work. You have lost an ability you are disabled.
    Accessible parking infers that all other parking is inaccessible. I’d rather park in a spot that is accessible to the shops than one that is inaccessible.

  • I hate the phrase. SPECIAL NEEDS it really makes me angry that disabled are refereed that way. It makes us sound helpless.

    • Why is this, if you have special needs then you have them. I worked at the Special Olympics her in SA 5 years ago, not one of those athletes objected to this term, in fact when I asked is there any Special needs here they mobbed me so they could get their requests in and any difficulties they were having sorted out pronto.

  • If you all are through arguing about how to refer to these folks you should first look up the definitions of the various terms. DISABLED (Per Webster’s it means: INCAPACITATED by illness, injury, or wounds.) vs. SPECIAL NEEDS (look up the LEGAL DEFINITION) are almost polar opposites. You will find that, as in the case of my son with SMA, he is an Honor Student (4.0 gpa). He has more brains, courage, willpower, and high standards than anyone I know. He and all of his friends have chosen the term Special Needs. They all have PHYSICAL issues. NONE of them are INCAPACITATED. They because of their individual issues, have to do some things differently than you do. When I mentioned this issue to this group they all, without exception chose to be referred to as Special Needs people because they have some special needs but they are not disabled. They don’t want you to see them as broken or incapacitated or “special”, but as people with the same feelings as you should have. Put yourself in their place. Would you rather be referred to as INCAPACITATED, or to have some SPECIAL NEEDS. I am so surprised to find so many people completely off base on this issue. Disabled is a CONDITION, not a person. Now I ask you, how many people with a disability are you going to insult today?????

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