What to Call People With Disabilities.

Some terms are offensive.

Bonnie Mills, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #155

Today's topic is the language of disability and disease. When I was a technical writer, questions came up all the time about how to write about people with medical conditions. So today, Bonnie Trenga will educate us.

When tackling how to refer to people who have disabilities or who suffer from illnesses, the bottom line is that we need to be sensitive to the feelings of others.

The Two Extremes

I’m glad to report that times have changed. It’s no longer acceptable to say a sentence such as “Hey, I saw a deaf and dumb cripple today.” That would be extremely offensive (1, 2). Here is a list of words you need to wipe from your vocabulary unless you’re writing a character who likes to be offensive: “crippled,” “mute,” “deaf-mute,” and “deaf and dumb” (3).

On the other end of the spectrum, some people have been too eager to create euphemisms for diseases or conditions in an effort to make such conditions seem less of a big deal, but euphemisms such as “differently abled” and “handicapable” are now considered condescending (4). There’s no reason to try to be too nice about it.

The Middle Road

So how do people who can’t walk or people who can’t hear wish to be referred to? The preferred terms to use these days are “disability” and “disabled.” These words have replaced “handicap” and “handicapped.” It’s no longer OK to call someone “handicapped” (5), but it is acceptable to use “handicapped” in common phrases such as “handicapped parking.”

If you must refer to someone with a disability, it’s a good idea to put the person first. So it’s better to say, “He is a person with disabilities” than “He is disabled” or “He is a disabled person.” The phrase “a person with cerebral palsy” might sound a bit awkward, but since people with disabilities and the organizations that serve them might prefer this phrasing, we should respect their wishes (4).

Now that society is more sensitive to all its members, we need to follow disability etiquette. The United Spinal Association, for example, offers online a 36-page PDF on how to be sensitive to people with all kinds of disabilities (there's a link in the references at the bottom of this transcript) . The Association reminds us, “People with disabilities are individuals with families, jobs, hobbies, likes and dislikes, and problems and joys. While the disability is an integral part of who they are, it alone does not define them. Don’t make them into disability heroes or victims. Treat them as individuals” (6).


About the Author

Bonnie Mills, Writing for Grammar Girl

Bonnie Mills has been a copyeditor since 1996.