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What to Call People With Disabilities.

Some terms are offensive.

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

Specific Conditions

You might be wondering how to refer to people with vision, hearing, and mobility problems or specific diseases. It’s OK to refer to someone as “blind,” but it’s better to say, “a person who is blind” than “a blind person” (2), although organizations that serve people who are blind have names that reflect the old way of thinking, for example The American Council of the Blind. On the site for the Perkins School of the Blind, for instance, people who are blind are referred to as “people with visual impairments” and “people who are visually impaired” (7).

You can refer to a person who can’t hear or who has partial hearing loss as “hard of hearing” or “deaf.” There’s no need to avoid the term “deaf.” In fact, there is a Deaf culture, where Deaf has a capital D. Members of the Deaf culture “belong to the community that has formed around the use of American Sign Language as the preferred means of communication” (8).

As for someone who is in a wheelchair, you can just say, “wheelchair user.” It’s considered inappropriate to say, “confined to a wheelchair” (6).

And as for people who suffer from any number of illnesses, from asthma to diabetes to cancer, you could just say something like “a person who suffers from asthma” or “a person who has diabetes.” Sure the people might be asthmatic or diabetic, but that’s not who the people are. Their disease doesn't define them.

Summary

In summary, no matter what disability someone has, you need to be polite and sensitive to that person and use an appropriate term.

Administrative

This podcast was written by Bonnie Trenga, author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, who blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com, and I'm Mignon Fogarty, the author of the paperback book Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. That's all. Thanks for listening.

References

1. American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, p. 132.

2. American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, pp. 62-3.

3. American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, p. 310.

4. American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, pp. 142-3.

5. American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, p. 213.

6. "Disability Etiquette," United Spinal Association, http://www.unitedspinal.org/pdf/DisabilityEtiquette.pdf. (accessed Oct. 19, 2008).

7. Perkins School for the Blind. http://www.perkins.org/perkinsvision/. (accessed Oct. 19, 2008).

8. American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, p. 131.

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About the Author

Bonnie Mills, Writing for Grammar Girl

Bonnie Mills has been a copyeditor since 1996.