Portrayal of People with Disabilities


Words have power. Self-advocates with intellectual disabilities have clearly stated that negative language leads to harmful action, discrimination, abuse, negative stereotypes, disenfranchisement, and violence. "Retard" and "retarded" are derogatory and dehumanizing terms -- on par with the N-word used to describe African Americans, and various hateful terms used to describe members of the Jewish, gay and lesbian, and other minority communities. In addition, words and labels can cause others to think that people with intellectual disabilities are not able to achieve the things that others can achieve.

The self-advocacy movement led by people with developmental disabilities has fought for years to eliminate the use of the term 'mental retardation' due to its incredibly harmful impact on their lives. There is consensus nationwide among the disability community to replace the term with one that is more respectful: 'people with intellectual disabilities.'

People with disabilities do not want to be labeled and they do not want to be defined by their particular disability or disabilities. Disability is a natural part of the human experience, an aspect of human diversity, like other areas of human variation. Therefore it is preferable to use "people first" language that places the emphasis on the person instead of on the disability. For example, instead of saying "the disabled" it is preferable to say "person with a disability." Instead of "the epileptic," say "person with epilepsy." Instead of "developmentally disabled," use "person with developmental disabilities." Other examples include: "person with cerebral palsy," "person with intellectual disabilities," "person with autism," "a person who is blind, deaf," etc.

People with disabilities also do not want to be referred to as a victim or object of pity. People with disabilities are not victims. Disability is just one aspect of the person. Avoid using "suffers from," "afflicted with," "bound," "confined," "sentenced to," "prisoner," "victim," or any other term that implies tragedy. For example, instead of writing "wheelchair-bound" or "confined to a wheelchair" use "person who uses a wheelchair." Instead of "victim of quadriplegia," use "person with quadriplegia" or "people with paraplegia."

Below is a useful table with more examples of more respectful terms that may be used when referring to people who have disabilities. It is based on a document was prepared by the Texas Council on Developmental Disabilities. Additional information and resources are located at right.


How Do You Talk About People with Disabilities?

Use People First Language... ...Instead of Labels
that Stereotype and Devalue
  • people/individuals with disabilities
  • an adult who has a disability
  • a child with a disability
  • a person
  • the handicapped
  • the disabled
  • people/individuals without disabilities
  • typical kids
  • normal people/healthy individuals
  • atypical kids
  • people with intellectual and developmental disabilities
  • he/she has a cognitive impairment
  • a person who has Down syndrome
  • the mentally retarded; retarded people
  • he/she is retarded; the retarded
  • moron, idiot, imbecile
  • he/she's a Downs kid; a Mongoloit; a Mongol
  • a person who has autism
  • autistic
  • people with a mental illness
  • a person who has an emotional disability
  • a person with a psychiatric illness/disability
  • the mentally ill; the emotionally disturbed
  • he/she is insane; crazy; demented; psycho; a maniac; a lunatic
  • a person who has a learning disability
  • he/she is learning disabled
  • a person who is deaf
  • he/she has a hearing impairment/loss
  • a man/woman who is hard of hearing
  • the deaf
  • a person who is deaf and cannot speak
  • a person who has a speech disorder
  • he/she uses a communication device
  • he/she uses synthetic speech
  • he/she is deaf and dumb
  • a mute
  • a person who is blind
  • a person who has a visual impairment
  • a man/woman who has low vision
  • the blind
  • a person who has epilepsy
  • people with a seizure disorder
  • an epileptic
  • a victim of epilepsy
  • a spaz
  • a person who uses a wheelchair
  • people who have a mobility impairment
  • a person who walks with crutches
  • he/she is wheelchair bound
  • he/she is confined to a wheelchair
  • a cripple
  • a person who has quadriplegia
  • people with paraplegia
  • a quadriplegic; a quad
  • a paraplegic
  • he/she is of small or short stature
  • a dwarf
  • a midget
  • he/she has a congenital disability
  • he/she has a birth defect
  • accesible buses, bathrooms, etc
  • reserved parking for people with disabilities
  • handicapped buses, bathrooms, etc
  • handicapped parking

Learn More

Learn more about Person First Language by contacting the UCEDD and/or LEND nearest you.  Use this interactive map to find your local UCEDD or LEND.


Senate Accessibility Manual

In recognition of the 20th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Senator Mike Enzi (WY) published an updated version of his Accessibility Manual - a comprehensive guide to providing Senate offices and constituents with valuable information on accessibility throughout the US Capitol Complex.

This manual includes a variety of ideas and suggestions to help address the needs of staff, constituents, and visitors with accessibility needs, including: basic rules of etiquette; locations of accessible routes and entrances; accessible room design; and emergency evacuation procedures.

Please feel free to use this manual as you develop policies and procedures for accommodating individuals with accessibility needs, whether they are visiting our nation's capital or working in a Congressional office.

PDF here.

DOC here.