Community Advocacy and Support by and for Young Mothers

avoiding ableist language

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julie's picture
Last seen: 12 years 3 months ago
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avoiding ableist language

Guidelines for Non-Handicapping Language in APA Journals


Committee on Disability Issues in Psychology
The use of certain words or phrases can express gender, ethnic, or racial bias, either intentionally or unintentionally. The same is true of language referring to persons with disabilities, which in many instances can express negative and disparaging attitudes.

It is recommended that the word disability be used to refer to an attribute of a person, and handicap to the source of limitations. Sometimes a disability itself may handicap a person, as when a person with one arm is handicapped in playing the violin. However, when the limitation is environmental, as in the case of attitudinal, legal, and architectural barriers, the disability is not handicapping—the environmental factor is. This distinction is important because the environment is frequently overlooked as a major source of limitation, even when it is far more limiting than the disability. Thus, prejudice handicaps people by denying access to opportunities; inaccessible buildings surrounded by steps and curbs handicap people who require the use of a ramp.

Use of the terms non-disabled or persons without disabilities is preferable to the term normal when comparing persons with disabilities to others. Usage of normal makes the unconscious comparison of abnormal, thus stigmatizing those individuals with differences. For example, state "a non-disabled control group," not "a normal control group."

The guiding principle for non handicapping language is to maintain the integrity of individuals as whole human beings by avoiding language that (a) implies that a person as a whole is disabled (e.g., disabled person), (b) equates persons with their condition (e.g., epileptics), (c) has superfluous, negative overtones (e.g., stroke victim), or (d) is regarded as a slur (e.g., cripple).

For decades, persons with disabilities have been identified by their disability first, and as persons, second. Often, persons with disabilities are viewed as being afflicted with, or being victims of, a disability. In focusing on the disability, an individual's strengths, abilities, skills, and resources are often ignored. In many instances, persons with disabilities are viewed neither as having the capacity or right to express their goals and preferences nor as being resourceful and contributing members of society. Many words and phrases commonly used when discussing persons with disabilities reflect these biases.

Listed below are examples of negative, stereotypical, and sometimes offensive words and expressions. Also listed are examples of preferred language, which describes without implying a negative judgement. Even though their connotations may change with time, the rationale behind use of these expressions provides a basis for language reevaluation. The specific recommendations are not intended to be all-inclusive. The basic principles, however, apply in the formulation of all nonhandicapping language.

1. Put people first, not their disability
Comment: Preferred expressions avoid the implication that the person as a whole is disabled or defective.

disabled person
defective child
mentally ill person
person with (who has) a disability
child with a congenital disability
child with a birth impairment
person with mental illness or psychiatric disability

2. Do not label people by their disability
Comment: Because the person is not the disability, the two concepts should be separate.
the disabled
the retarded
the mentally ill
the CMI or SPMI

people who have schizophrenia
individuals with epilepsy
person with an amputation
individuals with paraplegia
people with disabilities
children with mental retardation
people with a mental illness or psychiatric disability
people with long term or serious and persistent mental illness or psychiatric disabilities

3. Do not label persons with disabilities as patients or invalids
Comment: These names imply that a person is sick or under a doctor's care. People with disabilities should not be referred to as patients or invalids unless the illness status (if any) is under discussion or unless they are currently residing in a hospital.

4. Do not overextend the severity of a disability
Comment: Preferred expressions limit the scope of the disability. Even if a person has a particular physical disability, this does not mean that the person is unable to do all physical activities. Similarly, a child with a learning disability does not have difficulty in all areas of learning nor does mental retardation imply retardation in all aspects of development. Chronicity in physical illness often implies a permanent situation, but persons with psychiatric disabilities are able to recover.
the physically disabled
the learning disabled
retarded adult
chronic mental illness

individuals with a physical disability
children with specific learning disabilities
adult with mental retardation
long-term or persistent mental illness or psychiatric disability

5. Use emotionally neutral expressions
Comment: Objectionable expressions have excessive, negative overtones and suggest continued helplessness.
stroke victim
afflicted with cerebral palsy
suffering from multiple sclerosis

individual who had a stroke
person with cerebral palsy
people who have multiple sclerosis

6. Emphasize abilities, not limitations
Comment: The person is not confined to a wheelchair but uses it for mobility, nor is a person homebound who is taught or who works at home.
confined to a wheelchair

uses a wheelchair
child who is taught at home

7. Avoid offensive expression
crazy, paranoid

person who has a limp
person with a shortened arm
child with Down Syndrome
person with symptoms of mental illness

8. Focus on the right and capacity of people with disabilities to express their own goals and preferences and to exercise control over their own services and supports
Comment: In many instances, persons with disabilities are not given opportunities to participate in decisions regarding the services or supports they will receive as part of a treatment or rehabilitation program. Instead, they are viewed as requiring "management" as patients or cases, rather than as individuals with goals and preferences that should be taken into account.
professional judgment
patient management, case management

discussion of suitable and preferred living arrangements
include a consideration of a person's goals and preferences
care coordination, supportive services, resource coordination, assistance

9. Seeing people with disabilities as a resource and as contributing community members, not as a burden or problem.
Comment: Discussions regarding the service needs of persons with disabilities and their families often use terms that define the individual as a burden or a problem. Instead, terms which reflect the special needs of these persons are preferable, with a clear recognition of the responsibility of communities for inclusion and support of persons with disabilities.
family burden
problem of mental illness or of the mentally ill
community support needs of individuals

family supports needs
challenges which people with psychiatric disabilities face
responsibilities of communities for inclusion and support "

other people i've talked to also find these words or usages offensive
-retarded or lame to mean stupid.
-deaf or blind to mean not getting it, not understanding.

do you know of any others?

vig's picture
Last seen: 10 years 10 months ago
Joined: 2004-05-06 18:40
avoiding ableist language

thanks for starting this julie. this was a huge lesson that i wish was focused on more in my education classes.

it may seem like a little thing but i can see a huge psychological difference. as a special ed teacher the student is my primary focus. whatever disability or learning order they come to the table with is secondary to the fact that they are a child. putting the diagnosis/disability first dehumanizes the student, or in the larger discussion, the person.

LessThenLove's picture
Last seen: 9 years 9 months ago
Joined: 2004-05-06 18:16
avoiding ableist language

Aw thanks Julie this rocks!

My new boyfriend Gary came over to my house and as an attempt to make a joke about me being too PC he was like "Your stairs are not handicap accesible" I was like "Yeah I know my sister has a disability and it's really hard." It was one of those situations where your jaw just drops... I wasn't acutally offended in this case, but it was so funny (wrong word but you know waht I mean) to see him react and realize what he had said. That reaction will promt him never to do it again I bet so I am going to continue to be blunt with people.

astrogirl's picture
Last seen: 9 years 7 months ago
Joined: 2004-06-14 12:38
Re: avoiding ableist language

:) People first laguage is a good read too.

SkyKid45's picture
Last seen: 4 years 7 months ago
Joined: 2004-05-08 16:18
avoiding ableist language

can this be made a sticky? just so we can refer people to this when they use words like that.

RileysMama2B16's picture
Last seen: 10 years 9 months ago
Joined: 2004-05-06 22:30
avoiding ableist language

This is soo helpful. I know that personally I sometimes try to think of better ways to phrase things so that I don't offend someone and this helps a LOT. Thank you!

jen's picture
Last seen: 12 years 3 months ago
Joined: 2003-12-11 13:06
avoiding ableist language


PLEASE do not use words such as "lame" or "retarded" in a derogatory way. This is offensive and ableist. I've seen this a couple times recently, so I just wanted to bring this to everyone's attention.

DeeLicious's picture
Last seen: 10 years 10 months ago
Joined: 2006-08-22 15:36
avoiding ableist language


new_mom's picture
Last seen: 5 years 1 month ago
Joined: 2006-04-16 01:10
avoiding ableist language

great post i totally agree