Terminology and Language


                        Many terms in common usage by the general public are not acceptable to people with a disability and, even among people with a disability, there is not always agreement.  Some of the more commonly used terms – both acceptable and unacceptable – are listed below.  In the unacceptable case, the preferred alternative is underlined.  Please note that terminology changes frequently so care needs to be taken in order not to cause offence.

            Terms which are generally acceptable:


Disabled People                         Refers to people experiencing disability in any way.


Hidden Disability                         Refers to an impairment which is not obvious at all times

                                                               e.g. epilepsy, diabetes.


Learning Difficulties                    Sometimes used in the same way as learning disabilities; but there can be some confusion as the term learning difficulties is used in some quarters to describe anyone who – for whatever reason – learns slowly or with difficulty.


Dyslexia                                       Dyslexia is often grouped under the same heading as learning difficulties but this can cause offence.  Most people with dyslexia prefer the term to be used separately.


Learning Disabilities                  Refers to an impairment of a function of the brain; with mental disability and learning difficulty, it is commonly used as a preferred alternative to mental handicap.


Mental Health Needs/Problems      Refers to mental illness; there is some concern that the  use of the word problem can result in the individual being seen as the problem.


Non-disabled Persons               Often preferred to able-bodied, as it is neutral and does not claim a monopoly on ability or fitness.


People with a Disability              Used by some as an alternative to disabled people; by others in preference to it, as it is thought to put people first.


Physical Disability                       Refers to limitation of a physical function; sometimes used as if synonymous with physical impairment.


Sensory Impairment                    Refers to limitation of a sensory function, i.e. hearing, sight, taste, smell, touch; sometimes called sensory disability.


Terms liable to cause offence:


confined to a wheelchair            This and similar terms, such as wheelchair bound, place excessive emphasis on the wheelchair, to the detriment of the person in the wheelchair.

            Use wheelchair user.


crippled                                        Old-fashioned and derogatory.

            Use physically impaired or physically disabled.


deaf and dumb                            Very few hearing impaired people are physically unable to speak; also the word dumb has come to imply lack of intelligence.

            Use deaf without speech.


epileptic, diabetic etc                 Refers to condition not person.

                                                               Use person with epilepsy, diabetes etc.


the handicapped                         Unacceptable for reasons discussed earlier.

                                                               Use person with a disability.


         mad                                              Old-fashioned and imprecise.

            Use person with mental health needs / mental distress.


      mentally handicapped              Unacceptable for reasons given earlier.

                                                               Use person with a learning difficulty.


spastic                                          Spasticity is a precise medical term and should not be used to describe a person.

            Use person with cerebral palsy.


victim of/suffers from                   Reinforces stereotype of helplessness, dependency, etc.

                                                      Use person with …


Disability Etiquette


            Many problems are the result of ignorance, fear or embarrassment on the part of non-disabled people.  Observing the following simple rules should help overcome these:

§                     §                     Always look at the person, not the disability/wheelchair/escort. 

§                     §                     Never make assumptions about what a person’s needs are.  Ask the person concerned, not a third party, about his or her needs; and, when asking, try not to be negative, e.g. instead of “can’t you do…?” say “do you need help with …?” 

§                     §                     When communicating with people who have speech impairments, give them time, concentrate on what is being said and listen to the rhythms of speech.  Don’t be afraid to ask for something to be repeated, but try to resist the temptation to finish the sentence for them. 

§                     §                     When communicating with people who have a hearing impairment, face them and ask them if they lip read.  If yes, speak slowly and clearly; face them all the time; do not raise your voice; try to avoid covering your mouth and make sure there is no strong light behind you. 

§                     §                     When communicating with a person through an interpreter or facilitator – whether for reasons of hearing impairment or other communication need – always address that person, not the interpreter or facilitator.  Do the same when the answer is being relayed to you. 

§                     §                     When talking for some time to someone who is using a wheelchair, try to ensure that your eye levels correspond; don’t lean on the wheelchair, as this can be annoying for the user and cause it to move. 

§                     §                     When guiding a blind person, try not to push or pull the person, ask how he/she wishes to take hold of you; warn of hazards, steps etc as they occur.

                         Remember: No two people have identical needs.  We are all different and our perceptions of other people vary and are often based on very limited information.  Never make assumptions about disability or the capabilities of individual disabled people.