Updated: March 31, 2023
When writing about anyone with a disability—whether physical, intellectual, or psychological/emotional— always strive to adopt “people first” language. This means using words that put the person at the center of a description rather than a label, their status, or focusing on what the individual cannot do.
However, many disabled communities prefer “identity first” language. You should ask the person what their preference is, both in how they are described as having a disability in general, as well as their specific disability. For example, someone may prefer person with a disability but also use autistic person, in which case they use both person-first and identity-first language, depending on context.
For example, you would refer to a “graduate student who has epilepsy” but not a “graduate student who’s an epileptic.” As with any other area of sensitivity like this, please ask the individual how they prefer to be referred to—for example, some people consider their disability an intrinsic aspect of their identity, such as “blind person” or “deaf person.” Be sure if you are interviewing someone with a disability, whether visible or not, make sure that they are aware of how much detail and information you will be sharing about their disability and ask them to review the content before it is published.
If the disability is not a relevant part of the content and there isn’t a need to include it, don’t.
Don’t refer to someone who does not have a disability as able-bodied. You can simply say they do not have a disability (or, if necessary, use non-disabled) when it’s absolutely necessary to distinguish that someone doesn’t have a disability. Avoid using the term normal.
Avoid sensationalizing a disability by using phrases like, but not limited to, “afflicted with,” “suffers from,” “wheelchair bound,” or “victim of.”
People with disabilities are typically not suffering from a disease or illness; therefore, they should not be referred to as patients, unless in a health care setting. Many people with chronic illnesses identify as disabled, and the same guidance should be followed.
Use accessible when describing a space, location, or event that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as in “accessible entrance,” “accessible classroom,” “accessible webinar,” etc.
To show inclusiveness and sensitivity to students, you may want to refer to them as “students who are receiving services,” which may include physical or mental help, or “students with disabilities.” The University of Iowa has services for students with disabilities, and a variety of accommodations can be made if needed.
Be sure the subject’s disclosure of this information was intentional and that they grant permission for it to be used in content.
Words to avoid and words to use
|Handicapped or disable||People/person with a disability/disabilities|
|Mute or dumb||Nonverbal|
|Dwarf or midget||Person of short stature|
|Emotionally disturbed||Person with a mental health disability|
|Suffers from, a victim of||Person with|
|Learning disabled||Person with a learning disability|
|Normal||Person without a disability|
|Birth defect||Congenital disability|
|Retarded||Person who has an intellectual disability|
|Handicapped parking||Accessible parking|
|Epileptic||Person with epilepsy|
|Quadriplegic, paraplegic||Person with quadriplegia, paraplegia|
|Mongoloid or downs||Person with Down syndrome|
|Developmentally delayed||Person with a developmental delay|
|Confined to a wheelchair||Person who uses a wheelchair|
|Hearing impaired||Person who is deaf or hard of hearing|
|Vision impaired||Person who is blind|
More terms to avoid or preferred language
- Able-bodied or normal when referring to a person who does not have a disability.
- Afflicted with
- Confined to a wheelchair: Describes a person only in relationship to a piece of equipment designed to liberate rather than confine.
- Deaf and dumb/deaf-mute (preferred: Deaf individual; capitalizing Deaf indicates the person identifies with the Deaf/signing community)
- Defect, birth defect, defective
- Disabled (preferred: people with disabilities or disabled people)
- Epileptic fit: The term seizure is preferred when referring to the brief manifestation of symptoms common among those with epilepsy.
- Mentally retarded: Always try to specify the type of disability being referenced. Otherwise, the terms mental disability, intellectual disability, and developmental disability are acceptable.
- Paraplegic: Avoid referring to an individual as a paraplegic. Instead, say the person has paraplegia.
- Psychotic: Avoid using psychotic to describe a person; instead refer to a person as having a psychotic condition or psychosis.
- Quadriplegic: Use people-first language, such as a person with quadriplegia.
- Schizophrenic: Use people-first language, stating that someone is a person with schizophrenia or a person diagnosed with schizophrenia rather than a schizophrenic or a schizophrenic person.
- Stricken with, suffers from, victim of
- Wheelchair-bound (preferred: person who uses a wheelchair, wheelchair user)
- Speaks sign language/reads braille (preferred: American Sign Language fluent; braille reader or braille user). Also note: American Sign Language is one sign language, but there are others. Examples include Black American Sign Language (BASL) and Japanese Sign Language (JSL).
- ADA National Network – Guidelines for Writing About People With Disabilities
- Americans with Disabilities Act
- National Center on Disability and Journalism (NCDJ), Arizona State University
- NCDJ, Disability Language Style Guide
- SPRC, Style Guide – Reporting on Mental Health
- Diversity Style Guide.com
- National Association of the Deaf
- Disability Studies Quarterly
Download the Guide
Download a PDF of the University of Iowa DEI Style Guide