Is there a communications etiquette when referring to people with disabilities? Here are guidelines to help you communicate better so that you don’t use language that might be upsetting.
Guidelines for addressing those with disabilities
These guidelines provide preferred language for referring to people with disabilities in an inclusive manner. Words and images are very powerful and we like to depict people with disabilities in a positive light, giving them a sense of empowerment, inclusion and acceptance.
Use the appropriate terminology
When referring to people with disabilities, be cognizant that you’re using the appropriate terminology since it provides a positive image of people living with a disability.
Emphasize the person, not the disability
One of the major advancements in communicating with and about people with disabilities is emphasizing the person not the disability. People with disabilities should be seen as people first, and their abilities should be emphasized despite their challenges.
When using “people first language”, the disability is no longer the primary and defining characteristic but one of several aspects of the whole person. By seeing the individual as a whole person, you show them respect and maintain their integrity and dignity.
Do not use offensive, outdated words
Always refrain from using offensive, outdated words such as retard, freak, lame, crippled, subnormal, vegetable, handicapped or imbecile. Avoid negative descriptors such as suffering or battling (e.g. “she suffers from cerebral palsy”).
Abbey Curran, who lives with cerebral palsy, became the first Miss USA contestant with a disability when representing Iowa in 2008.
Girl suffering from cerebral palsy competes in pageant representing Iowa in 2008.
Disabled girl competes in pageant representing Iowa in 2008.
By using the correct terminology, you’re stating the facts in neutral terms and avoiding judgemental or emotional descriptors such as unfortunate or pitiful.
Jane uses a wheelchair.
Jane uses a communication device.
Jane is confined to a wheelchair.
Jane is unable to speak.
Don’t equate disability with illness
Don’t equate disability with illness, as people with disabilities can be healthy though they may have chronic diseases such as arthritis, heart disease and diabetes.
Not sure what’s appropriate? Ask.
If you don’t know the appropriate words to use simply ask the person what is preferred.
Note: In some circles, people with disabilities have reclaimed words such as “crippled” or “disabled” as a way of empowering themselves and their identity. This is the prerogative of individuals with disabilities and doesn’t mean that reporters or other non-disabled people should use these terms.
Enjoy discussions about communications etiquette and similar topics? Check out one of our support groups where we frequently share our insights about living with cerebral palsy.