The language of ability

Language is unique to humans as our method of communication.  It is an astonishing and powerful tool, and its variety and complexity is something to be treasured and explored.

However, we need to be aware of the meanings of our words beyond the dictionary definition. Intent and context can change meaning, and language evolves over time, so what may have been acceptable 20 to 30 years ago is not necessarily acceptable now.

As children we were taught to say “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”, but today we know it is not true. Real emotional damage can be done using negative or disparaging terminology, and this is particularly true in the disability sector.

Inclusive language means ensuring that we do not refer to people with a disability in a way that makes them inferior to someone without that disability.

With particular reference to the autistic spectrum, words like ‘high-functioning’ and ‘low-functioning’ can be problematic – they discount all the things the person with autism can do, and reduces them to someone who can or cannot function in the perceived ‘normal’ way in a neurotypical society.

The most important thing we can do is to listen to the person with the disability. If they ask us to use person first, then we do that. If they prefer to have their disability first as part of their identity, then we do that. Everyone has a preference and the person without the disability does not get to tell the person with it, that their use of language is wrong.

Some words still used in the medical field are considered unacceptable in conversation. Words like ‘retarded’ can have a negative, derogatory meaning, and can be very upsetting both to a person with a disability and their family and friends.  We also find that some terms that were originally an acceptable definition of a disability are turned into insults and slurs, so we should again listen to the people who are hurt by these words and respect their request to stop using them.

Here is a list of words and phrases to use and to avoid:

Avoid Use
(the) handicapped, (the) disabled disabled (people)
afflicted by, suffers from, victim of has [name of condition or impairment]
confined to a wheelchair, wheelchair-bound wheelchair user
mentally handicapped, mentally defective, retarded, subnormal with a learning disability (singular) with learning disabilities (plural)
cripple, invalid disabled person
spastic person with cerebral palsy
able-bodied non-disabled
mental patient, insane, mad person with a mental health condition
deaf and dumb; deaf mute deaf, user of British Sign Language (BSL), person with a hearing impairment
the blind people with visual impairments; blind people; blind and partially sighted people
an epileptic, diabetic, depressive, and so on person with epilepsy, diabetes, depression or someone who has epilepsy, diabetes, depression
dwarf; midget someone with restricted growth or short stature
fits, spells, attacks seizures
Mongol person with Down syndrome

In future, focusing on accessibility, inclusion and ability in our language is the way to ensure everyone’s needs are respected and met, and that all people feel part of society, regardless of their mental, physical or neurological differences.



louise ratcliffe
Louise Ratcliffe
Information Officer
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