Respectful Disability Language ► Equal Dreams

In our work at Equal Dreams, all terms and phrasings are meant to adhere to and reinforce the principles of the social and universal models of disability, rather than a medical model.

Different people have their own preferences in how they describe or refer to their disabilities. Where possible, it is best to check with the individual for their preference.

The intention of people-first language (such as persons with disability and persons with autism) is to focus on the person first before the label. This was intended to shift the focus from the impairment to the social barriers that impede full participation in the community.

However, some argue that people-first language separates the disability from a person’s identity, suggesting that disability is inherently negative and undermining the social model of disability.

The intention of disability-identity-first language (such as Deaf student and autistic person) is to acknowledge the individual or community’s desire to embrace disability as part of one’s self/community identity and, in some cases, to express pride in and ownership of such an identity. For example, the Deaf community considers itself a linguistic minority with a unique language and culture, hence members of the community prefer the term Deaf (with capital D). However, there are also individuals who prefer not to adopt an identity associated with their disability.

It is important to acknowledge that not every person will agree with or adopt such terms, and individual preferences that differ are to be respected. In instances where the person had expressed specific preferences, we will adopt the personal preference.

In cases where a collective reference has to be made without the opportunity to ascertain the particular community’s preferences (such as in a publication), a caveat explaining this should be made.

Our approach:

  • “Disabilities” is used instead of “special needs”. The term “special needs” is regarded by some as a euphemism that suggests basic human rights like education and social participation by people with disabilities are considered special and out of the ordinary. This concept is explained in this video by CoorDown.
  • Other euphemisms for disability such as “differently-abled”, “diffabled”, “handicapable” are avoided.
  • Terms (such as “help” or “beneficiary”) that suggest a charity or medical model mindset are avoided.
  • When referring to persons without disabilities, terms such as “normal”, “healthy” or “abled-bodied” are avoided. Such terms suggest that persons with disabilities are abnormal, unhealthy or have a body that is less abled.

Regardless of the approach, the language used should respect the individuals and their communities.

Here are examples of some prevalent preferences in the communities:

You may say… Don’t say…
  • wheelchair user
  • disabled people
  • people with disabilities
  • person with intellectual/cognitive/developmental disability
  • have hearing loss
  • Deaf or hard of hearing
  • Blind / low vision
  • Autistic
  • person with vision impairment
  • person with a mental health condition
  • wheelchair-bound
  • handicapped
  • retarded, slow, idiot
  • crazy, psycho, weirdo, mentally sick/ill
  • deaf and mute, hearing-impaired
  • person suffering from, person afflicted with, a victim of…
  • accessible facilities such as parking lots and toilets
  • handicapped/disabled facilities such as parking lots and toilets
  • non-disabled
  • normal, abled-bodied



Our Team Lead was invited to share about her personal learning journey in Disability Language in B-Side’s Social Impact column. Check out her article “Did I say it Right?”.

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