An essay on proper language, speaking to or reffering to people with disabilitys

Essay by ginaaCollege, UndergraduateA+, November 2002

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Proper Language

Words like "handicapped," "wheelchairbound" and "polio victim" may sound neutral or sympathetic, but people with disabilities find them patronizing and offensive. The language people and news organizations use can reinforce negative stereotypes and misconceptions. Or, they can help change attitudes toward people with disabilities by describing them and their conditions accurately.

Below are six general rules for writing or talking about people with disabilities, followed by tips on interacting and a short glossary of outdated terms and suggested alternatives. Many of the new terms are slightly longer, but using them will help avoid being perceived as insensitive or "behind the times."


"Handicapped" has a negative connotation for many people, so most social service agencies and news organizations now use "person with a disability." Handicap describes a condition or barrier caused by society or the environment, i.e., "She is handicapped by inaccessible transportation," or "stairs are a handicap to him."


The person precedes the disability, both figuratively and literally. It's "people with disabilities," not "disabled persons," and "person with cerebral palsy," not "cerebral palsy victim".


People with disabilities aren't "victims". As one woman who uses a wheelchair noted, "I'm not a wheelchair victim. Wheelchair victims are the people I bump into with my footrest at the supermarket." Nor should people be described as "inspirational" or "courageous" just beecause they have a disability.


Use an adjective as a description, not a category or group, i.e., "people who are disabled," not "the disabled," and "person with epilepsy," not "an epileptic."


Terms like "physically challenged", "special", and "differently- abled" are patronizing. If appropriate, note that a person has a physical, sensory or mental impairment and leave it at that. Also, people without disabilities aren't "normal", because that infers that...