• Blog
  • by: Jennifer McMinn
  • October 14, 2023

Language Matters! Disability Language Tips & Examples

Create a positive, welcoming environment and raise everyone’s comfort levels when interacting with people who have disabilities. Use these disability terminology tips to raise awareness and champion inclusive programs and spaces in your community!


  • A simple approach is to use person-first language. This puts the person before their disability to recognize that the person is not defined by their disability or condition, for example ‘a person with a disability’.
  • An important exception to the rule of person-first language is Identity-first language. This is a way some individuals with disabilities prefer to emphasize what they consider to be an inherent part of their identity. In this case, a person may choose to put their condition or disability first as a positive label, for example, ‘autistic person’.
  • Language should focus on the abilities of the individual and the accommodations that support them.
  • Avoid making statements that reinforce negative stereotypes or that generalize characteristics of individuals with specific disabilities. No two individuals are alike.
  • Only refer to the person’s disability if it is relevant.
  • Language is complicated and always evolving. The language you choose to use may depend on your audience, whose experience you are trying to capture, and to honor the individual’s unique language preferences and rights to decide how they wish to be described.

When in doubt, just ask!


Preferred | Outdated/Avoid

A person with a disability, special needs

handicapped person, disabled individual, special needs child

An individual with Down syndrome

a Down’s child, Down’s syndrome

People who are neurodivergent

a neurodiverse person

a person with autism or autism spectrum disorder is a safe bet, however many in the autistic community strongly prefer identity-first language, such as autistic people

Asperger’s syndrome

people who use wheelchairs, other mobility devices, adaptive equipment

a person confined/bound to a wheelchair, wheelchair-bound

people with a communication, language, or speech disability

people who are nonverbal, can’t communicate/talk, have a speech impairment or disorder

people with cognitive, intellectual, learning, or developmental disabilities

mentally challenged, mentally retarded, slow, low-functioning

person with traumatic or acquired brain injury

brain damaged

child who is non-disabled or children without disabilities

healthy, able-bodied, normal, typically developing

person with a congenital disability

birth defect, abnormality

people who are deaf (use with profound hearing loss), have a hearing loss, or hard of hearing

the deaf, deaf person, deaf and dumb, hearing impaired

person with physical disability

person who is crippled, handicapped, deformed, has an abnormality, or that is physically challenged

persons of short stature

midget, dwarf, vertically challenged

people with emotional or psychiatric disabilities

the mentally ill, emotionally disturbed, bipolar, crazy

people with cerebral palsy, autism, diabetes, Tourette syndrome, dyslexia, epilepsy,

suffering from, afflicted with, victim of, or stricken with cerebral palsy, autism, diabetes, Tourette syndrome, dyslexia, epilepsy, etc

people with health/medical needs or specific related conditions

medically fragile, sick

Download this and a inclusive features checklist to keep learning!

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