Disability Etiquette

According to the CDC, about 50 million Americans report having a disability, which affects people in different ways, even when one person has the same type of disability as another person. Some disabilities may be hidden or not easy to see.

Person First Language

Person first language refers to the appropriate and respectful way to speak about an individual with a disability. People first language emphasizes the person first, not the disability. For example, when referring to a person with a disability, emphasize their abilities, refer to the person first such as “a person who…,” “a person with…,” or “a person who has…”

Be accurate and not judgmental. If you are unsure about how to describe a disability, ask some who knows, like the person with the disability themselves. Remember that language shapes attitude and people with disabilities for the most part, are ordinary people seeking to live ordinary lives! People with disabilities are mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, friends, neighbors, coworkers, students and teachers.

What Should You Say?

  • Know that people with disabilities are ordinary people with your common goals of living in a home, having a job and a family. Talk about people with disabilities as you would anyone else.
  • Never equate a person with a disability, such as referring to someone as retarded, epileptic or quadriplegic. These labels should only be used as medical diagnosis. Use Person First Language to tell what a person HAS, not what a person IS.
  • Emphasize the person’s abilities not their limitations.
  • Avoid negative words that imply tragedy, such as afflicted with, suffers from, victim or unfortunate.
  • A disability is not a challenge to overcome. You should not reference a person succeeding in spite of their disability. Ordinary things do not become extraordinary because they are accomplished by a person with a disability. What is extraordinary are the lengths people with disabilities have to go through and the barriers they overcome to do ordinary things in their daily lives.
  • Do not refer to a person as “bound to” or “confined to” a wheelchair. Wheelchairs are liberating to people with disabilities because they provide mobility.
  • Do not use the term “special” to imply segregation, such as separate schools or buses for people with disabilities, or to suggest a disability itself makes someone special.


Examples of Person First Language

Person First Language Language to Avoid
Person with a disability The disabled, handicapped
Person without a disability Normal, healthy
Person with an intellectual, cognitive, developmental disability Retarded, slow, special person
Person with Autism The Autistic
Person with an emotional or behavioral disability, person with a mental health or psychiatric disability Insane, cray, psycho, maniac, nuts, lunatic
Person who is hard of hearing Hearing impaired, suffers a hearing loss
Person who is deaf Deaf, mute
Person who is blind/visually impaired The blind
Person who has a communication disorder, is unable to speak, or uses a device to speak Mute, dumb
Person who uses a wheelchair Confined or restricted to a wheelchair, wheelchair bound
Person with a physical disability Crippled, deformed, spastic
Person with a congenital disability Birth defect
Person with epilepsy or seizure disorder Epileptic
Accessible parking or bathroom Handicapped parking or bathroom
Person of short stature Midget
Person with Down syndrome Mongoloid
Person who is successful, productive Has overcome his/her disability, is courageous

For more information about disabilities and health, visit www.cdc.gov/disabilities.