Language Matters: Disability Terminology
by LifeSource Group + Public Annex

Words for disability have changed and continue to change.  What is most important to remember is to ask the person who has a disability what term is preferred.  Person-first language has been the advocated way of speaking about people with disabilities (PWD) for decades and continues to be the accepted form for the non-disabled. Its intent is to identify that each person has many ways of being described, one of which is their disability.  Recently, Identity First Language is a form PWD are using to refer to themselves, claiming their identity as a disabled person as something that is inherent to who they are.  There are debates continuing as to whether everyone should be using this as the preferred terminology. (For more on this, read “I am Disabled: On Identity-First Versus People First Language” by Cara Liebowitz on or read “What is Identity-First Language, & Should You Use It” by JR Thorpe).

Special Needs is another term that was used for disabled people, especially in the Intellectual and Developmental Disability I/DD community.  This term is finding its way out of use as it sounds as if the user of the term is trying to hide the disability as if something is wrong with having one.  (View the YouTube video called “Not Special Needs.”) 

Abled-bodied was the preferred term for those without a disability but the preferred term now is non-disabled as it puts disability on a continuum, understanding that we will all have a disability at some point.  

Using childlike language for adults creates a power-over dynamic that is detrimental to esteem, self-determination and the relationship.  Demeaning terms can include kid, boy, girl, and little ____.  Tone is also important.  Be mindful to keep your tone as you would in speaking to any other adult.

Along this same thought is the use of mental-age theory. When we refer to someone as having the intellect of a certain age, we are limiting their capacity. It is best if we describe their current function, abilities, strengths and needs for support.  For example, instead of saying, “he is like a  two year old,” describe his attention span, his abilities and needs for support.

There are different models of defining disability: medical, functional, social and strength-based.  The model you come from is going to affect your language so it is important you know these models and understand their impact.  The medical model views disability as a condition requiring treatment.  The functional model views disability as a limitation to a person’s ability to perform a function.  The social model views disability as environmental or social barriers.  And the newest model is the strength-based model which emphasizes a person-centered strength orientation of viewing an individual.  

Omit these from use:  handicapped, idiot, retarded, mental retardation, crazy, wheelchair bound, crippled, deformed, harelip, lame, midget, suffers from ____. 
There are more of these terms you can review here: - Ableism/Language. Or “The Social Model of Disability and its implications for language use” by G. Carson.

Terms to Understand: 
attitudes and practices that devalue and limit PWD

Activities of Daily Living (ADLs): daily self-care activities including feeding, bathing, grooming, dressing, toileting, and ambulating.

Instrumental Activities of Daily Living (IADLs): more complex self-care activities including companionship, transportation, shopping, preparing meals, managing a household, medication management, communicating with others, managing finances.

Disability Justice: a movement and framework recognizing intersectionality and the oppressive impact of capitalism, colonialism, and ableism. (For more links go to Disability Justice - Project LETS:  Lets Erase the Stigma - Disability Justice).

I/DD: Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

Institutionalization: involuntary segregation of people with I/DD and mental illness into “healthcare”/ living facilities. 

Inclusion:  the recognition that we ALL belong and the practice of making all places and experiences accessible to everyone

Integration: the process of bringing a group or individual who is not typically included into the community or general classroom 

Intersectionality:  consideration of the impact of all marginalized aspects of someone  (race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, ethnicity, language, class)

Internalized Ableism: a PWD believing they are inferior to the non-disabled

Mainstreaming: moving a person or group of people who had been segregated into the community or general classroom setting 

Microaggression: unintentional prejudicial expression 

Neurodiversity: a view that humans naturally have a variety of neurological differences (View the following YouTube video for more on this:  “What You Need to Know About Neurodiversity”)

Person-Centered Care: PWD is involved in all decisions about themselves

Progressive Studio: a communal studio where disabled artists share space and are assisted in creating artwork. (Coined by

Self-Determination:  characteristic of empowerment to control one’s own life

Sheltered Workshop: An organization or environment that employs people with disabilities exclusively or primarily. These entities are often authorized to employ workers with disabilities at sub-minimum wages.