Communicating With and About People with Disabilities

Collage of people with different types of disabilities

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About 1 in 4, or 61 million, U.S. adults reports having some form of a disability.1 Disability is part of the human experience, but sometimes people use words or phrases that are insensitive and do not promote understanding, dignity, and respect for people with disabilities. Most often than not, this is not intentional, but is disrespectful just the same.

  • People-first language is the best place to start when talking to a person with a disability.
  • If you are unsure, ask the person how he or she would like to be described.
  • It is important to remember that preferences can vary.

People First Language

People-first language is used to communicate appropriately and respectfully with and about an individual with a disability. People-first language emphasizes the person first, not the disability. For example, when referring to a person with a disability, refer to the person first, by using phrases such as, “a person who …”, “a person with …” or, “person who has …”

These are some general tips you can follow:

Tips to communicate appropriately and respectfully with and about an individual with a disability
Tips Use Do not use
Emphasize abilities, not limitations Person who uses a wheelchair Confined or restricted to a wheelchair, wheelchair bound
Person who uses a device to speak Can’t talk, mute
Do not use language that suggests the lack of something Person with a disability Disabled, handicapped
Person of short stature Midget
Person with cerebral palsy Cerebral palsy victim
Person with epilepsy or seizure disorder Epileptic
Person with multiple sclerosis Afflicted by multiple sclerosis
Emphasize the need for accessibility, not the disability Accessible parking or bathroom Handicapped parking or bathroom
Do not use offensive language Person with a physical disability Crippled, lame, deformed, invalid, spastic
Person with an intellectual, cognitive, developmental disability Slow, simple, moronic, defective, afflicted, special person
Person with an emotional or behavioral disability, a mental health impairment, or a psychiatric disability Insane, crazy, psycho, maniac, nuts
Avoid language that implies negative stereotypes Person without a disability Normal person, healthy person
Do not portray people with disabilities as inspirational only because of their disability Person who is successful, productive Has overcome his/her disability, is courageous
  1. Okoro CA, Hollis ND, Cyrus AC, Griffin-Blake S. Prevalence of Disabilities and Health Care Access by Disability Status and Type Among Adults— United States, 2016. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2018; 67:882–887. DOI:

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