Guidelines for Writing About People With Disabilities

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Words are powerful.                                                                        

The words you use and the way you portray individuals with disabilities matters. This factsheet provides guidelines for portraying individuals with disabilities in a respectful and balanced way by using language that is accurate, neutral and objective.

1.  Ask to find out if an individual is willing to disclose their disability.

Do not assume that people with disabilities are willing to disclose their disability. While some people prefer to be public about their disability, such as including information about their disability in a media article, others choose to not be publically identified as a person with a disability.

2.  Emphasize abilities, not limitations.

Choosing language that emphasizes what people can do instead of what they can’t do is empowering.


Don’t Use

Person who uses a wheelchair

Wheelchair-bound; confined to a wheelchair

Person who uses a communication device; uses an alternative method of communication

Is non-verbal; can’t talk

3. In general, refer to the person first and the disability second.

People with disabilities are, first and foremost, people.  Labeling a person equates the person with a condition and can be disrespectful and dehumanizing. A person isn’t a disability, condition or diagnosis; a person has a disability, condition or diagnosis. This is called Person-First Language.


Don’t Use

Person with a disability, people with disabilities

Disabled person; the disabled

Man with paraplegia

Paraplegic; paraplegic man

Person with a learning disability

Slow learner

Student receiving special education services

Special education student

A person of short stature or little person

Dwarf, midget

4.  However, always ask to find out an individual’s language preferences.

People with disabilities have different preferences when referring to their disability.  Some people see their disability as an essential part of who they are and prefer to be identified with their disability first – this is called Identity-First Language. Others prefer Person-First Language. Examples of Identity-First Language include identifying someone as a deaf person instead of a person who is deaf, or an autistic person instead of a person with autism.

5.  Use neutral language.

Do not use language that portrays the person as passive or suggests a lack of something: victim, invalid, defective.


Don’t Use

Person who has had a stroke

Stroke victim

Congenital disability

Birth defect

Person with epilepsy

Person afflicted with epilepsy, epileptic

Person with a brain injury

Brain damaged, brain injury sufferer

Burn survivor

Burn victim

6. Use language that emphasizes the need for accessibility rather than the presence of a disability.


Don’t Use

Accessible parking

Handicapped parking

Accessible restroom

Disabled restroom

Note that ‘handicapped’ is an outdated and unacceptable term to use when referring to individuals or accessible environments.

7.  Do not use condescending euphemisms.

Terms like differently-abled, challenged, handi-capable or special are often considered condescending. 

8.  Do not use offensive language.

Examples of offensive language include freak, retard, lame, imbecile, vegetable, cripple, crazy, or psycho.

9.  Describing people without disabilities.

In discussions that include people both with and without disabilities, do not use words that imply negative stereotypes of those with disabilities.


Don’t Use

People without disabilities

Normal, healthy, able-bodied, whole

She is a child without disabilities

She is a normal child

10.  Remember that disability is not an illness and people with disabilities are not patients.

People with disabilities can be healthy, although they may have a chronic condition such as arthritis or diabetes. Only refer to someone as a patient when his or her relationship with a health care provider is under discussion.

11.  Do not use language that perpetuates negative stereotypes about psychiatric disabilities.

Much work needs to be done to break down stigma around psychiatric disabilities. The American Psychiatric Association has new guidelines for communicating responsibly about mental health.


Don’t Use

He has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder; he is living with bipolar disorder

He is (a) bipolar; he is (a) manic-depressive

Attempted suicide

Unsuccessful suicide

Died by suicide

Committed suicide

Is receiving mental health services

Mental Health patient/case

Person with schizophrenia

Schizophrenic, schizo

Person with substance use disorder; person experiencing alcohol/drug problem

Addict, abuser; junkie

She has a mental health condition or psychiatric disability

She is mentally ill/emotionally disturbed/ insane

12.  Portray successful people with disabilities in a balanced way, not as heroic or superhuman.

Do not make assumptions by saying a person with a disability is heroic or inspiring because they are simply living their lives. Stereotypes may raise false expectations that everyone with a disability is or should be an inspiration. People may be inspired by them just as they may be inspired by anyone else. Everyone faces challenges in life.

13.  Do not mention someone’s disability unless it is essential to the story.

The fact that someone is blind or uses a wheelchair may or may not be relevant to the article you are writing.  Only identify a person as having a disability if this information is essential to the story. For example, say “Board president Chris Jones called the meeting to order.” Do not say, “Board president Chris Jones, who is blind, called the meeting to order.”  It’s ok to identify someone’s disability if it is essential to the story. For example, “Amy Jones, who uses a wheelchair, spoke about her experience with using accessible transportation.”   

14.  Create balanced human-interest stories instead of tear-jerking stories.

Tearjerkers about incurable diseases, congenital disabilities or severe injury that are intended to elicit pity perpetuate negative stereotypes.


People First Language and More, Disability is Natural!

Guidelines: How to Write and Report About People with Disabilities, and “Your Words, Our Image” (poster), Research & Training Center on Independent Living, University of Kansas, 8th Edition, 2013.  

Mental Health Terminology: Words Matter and “Associated Press Style Book on Mental Illness,” American Psychiatric Association, 2013.  

Content was developed by the ADA Knowledge Translation Center, and is based on professional consensus of ADA experts and the ADA National Network.

ADA Knowledge Translation Center

The contents of this factsheet were developed under grants from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR grant number 90DP0086). NIDILRR is a Center within the Administration for Community Living (ACL), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The contents of this factsheet do not necessarily represent the policy of NIDILRR, ACL, HHS, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government.


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