Language Guide

Using language to change the way we think about disabilities, discourage discrimination and empower individuals

Most people are well-meaning and do not intend to offend a persons with disabilities. They do not desire or aim to contribute to discrimination within society.

That being said, language can change the way we collectively think and feel about the subject matter based on our implicit biases. It is important for all individuals to remember that the language we use elicits a “positive” or “negative” image or emotion.

Some people may be unintentionally using language that is demeaning or patronizing to people with disabilities. Below are some points to consider during your future discussions.

A disabled person, a cripple, handicapped, or special needs

Using language like this to describe a person with a disability can make them feel as if they are being defined by their disability instead of describing one characteristic of their physical or mental abilities. Addressing their disability as separate from their identity can encourage equality and inclusion.

Try: “People with disabilities,” “Person with mobility impairment,” or a “Person with a physical disability.”

Crippled by, suffers from, inflicted with, challenged

What images and emotions come to mind when you hear that “John is crippled by cerebral palsy?” It would seem to immediately evoke an image of a person with a poor quality of life that comes accompanied with negative emotion. In reality, many people with injuries and disabilities live fulfilling lives.

Try: “Kumar has multiple sclerosis,” “Costos has cerebral palsy,” “Janine has muscular dystrophy”


Describe the person’s needs and omit the diagnosis: “Blake uses a power chair,” “Aletha needs behavior supports.”

Those poor people, disabled people, people like that

It is common for people to make sweeping generalizations and to stereotype. For example, “those disabled people sure have a lovely spirit, don’t they?” While this may seem like a well-intentioned compliment, it separates people with disabilities from our communities, it is exclusionary, and it ignores an individual’s whole identity. In reality, people with disabilities are part of the community; they live, work, raise children, go to restaurants, and enjoy sports and recreation within the community. They have interests and hobbies that are special and unique to them.

So instead try: “A member of my community,” “A man in my neighborhood,” or “Someone I know who has a disability”

Confined to a wheelchair

This phrase brings about images and feelings of limitation and imprisonment. In reality, a person actually uses a wheelchair to enable and empower them to get where they need to go independently.

Try: “Uses a wheelchair”