Guidelines to Terminology

Some people view their disability as central to their identity and use identity-first language. Others prefer person-first language. In describing groups of people or when individual preferences can’t be determined use person-first language. For example, use “people with disabilities” as opposed to “disabled people” or “the disabled.”

We advise avoiding writing that implies ableism: the belief that typical abilities – those of people who aren’t disabled – are superior.

Do not use phrases such as “confined to a wheelchair,” “wheelchair bound,””crippled,” “afflicted,” “victim of” or “suffers from a disorder.” These references diminish the individual’s dignity and magnify the disability. Instead, refer to “the person who uses a wheelchair” or “the person with an emotional disorder.”

Avoid using trendy euphemisms to describe people with disabilities. Expressions such as “physically challenged,” “special” and “handi capable” generally are regarded by the disability community as patronizing and inaccurate. Stick with simple language, such as “people with disabilities” or “the person who is deaf.”

Deaf refers to profound hearing loss. “Hard of hearing” may be used to describe any degree of hearing loss, from slight to profound. Avoid using “hearing impaired.”

Impairment is used to characterize a physical, mental or physiological loss, abnormality or injury that causes a limitation in one or more major life functions. For example, “The loss of her right arm was only a slight impairment to her ability to drive.”

Disability refers to a functional limitation that affects an individual’s ability to perform certain functions. For example, it is correct to say, “Despite his disability, he still was able to maintain employment.”

Handicap describes a barrier or problem created by society or the environment. For example, “The teacher’s negative attitude was a handicap to her.” Or, “The stairs leading to the stage were a handicap to him.”

Blind most frequently is used to describe a severe vision loss. Either blind or low vision are acceptable terms to describe all degrees of vision loss.

Developmental disability is any severe mental and/or physical disorder that began before age 22 and continues indefinitely. Individuals with mental retardation, autism, cerebral palsy, epilepsy and other similar long-term disability may be considered to have developmental disabilities.

Mental illness is a term describing many forms of illnesses such as schizophrenia, depression and emotional disorders. Use “person with a mental disability” rather than referring to an individual as “deranged” or “deviant.” Clinical terms such as “neurotic” and “psychotic” should be used only for clinical writing. Other terms such as “demented,” “insane,” “abnormal,” “deranged” and “mad” often are used incorrectly and should be avoided.

Functional Assessment in Rehabilitation
Goodwill Industries of America
ABILITY Magazine