Choosing positive words can empower people. Inappropriate terms
convey inaccurate information and harmful stereotypes. Here are four simple tips
on how to write and speak affirmatively about people with disabilities.
1. Put the person first.
Each of us has a variety of characteristics—hair color, sex
and height, for example. For some people, disability is one of those
characteristics. Regardless of our differences, however, we are all human.
When writing and speaking about people with disabilities, emphasize the person
and not the disability. Use language that puts people first.
Our senator is a person with epilepsy.
The supervisor is a woman with a spinal cord injury.
This building is accessible to people with disabilities.
2. No one is bound or confined to a wheelchair.
Wheelchairs are tools that enable people to move about. Some
people with mobility impairments use a wheelchair at various times during the
day, but no one stays in a wheelchair all day long. Some people transfer out
of their wheelchair to use a toilet. All wheelchair users, whether on their
own or with help, transfer out of their chair and into bed at night.
When writing or speaking about adaptive
equipment used by people with disabilities, recognize its positive and
3. People with disabilities are not automatically courageous.
It is tempting to believe that people with disabilities have a
special talent to endure and to overcome—to bravely face their disability.
But people with disabilities are neither more nor less courageous than anyone
When writing and speaking about people with disabilities, remember that every
one of us has challenges in our lives. Describe people with disabilities as
successful, productive or accomplished—but not as being gifted with special
4. Avoid terms that devalue people with disabilities.
Some terms that have been used in the past are now considered
hurtful and demeaning. Imagine how you would feel being described with these
common but out-of-date words and phrases: crippled, suffers from, lame,
afflicted with, victim.
When writing and speaking about people with disabilities, eliminate words
that describe their lives as limited or pitiful. Avoid reducing people to cases
and patients—instead of referring to an AIDS patient or a multiple
sclerosis case, choose dignified phrases like a man living with AIDS
and a woman with multiple sclerosis.
Underlying all these suggestions is one basic notion: put the
person first, using language that dignifies and affirms our common humanity.