Do’s and don’ts of inclusive disability language – a quick guide

A man and a woman smiling together. Text reads: inclusive language guide

People don’t always mean to be unkind when using an offensive word. Often, it’s because they just don’t know why a word may be hurtful to an individual.  

Below, we’ve outlined some guidance on how to speak about disability and disabled people.  It’s not about being “politically correct”, it’s about trying to encourage language that is more inclusive

What is ableist language?

Ableism is discrimination and prejudice directed at disabled people. Ableist language includes words that are derogatory or negative about disability.

Should I say “disabled” or “handicapped”?

The two terms are often used interchangeably, however their meanings are different and they are not synonyms of one another. 

A disability is the result of a medically definable condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities. 

A handicap is a circumstance that makes progress or success difficult, such as a film without subtitles or buttons on a lift without braille writing on them. 

The correct term to define a person is: person with disabilities, or disabled person, rather than “handicapped”. “Disabled” is not an offensive word, when used in people-centric language. 

Two women sharing a cup of tea, talking and smiling

People-centric language for disability

This is language that focuses on the humanity and individuality of disabled people. Avoid referring to them in passive and victimising group nouns. 

Don’t say

  • The disabled
  • The deafblind

Do say

  • Disabled people, people with disabilities
  • Deafblind person/person who is deafblind

“Disabled people” or “people with disabilities”?

Some people prefer a person-first approach to language (“people with disabilities”). Others see their disability as part of their identity, and are okay with terms like “disabled people”. 

Don’t be afraid to ask someone how they’d like to be referred to! 

In any case, do avoid dehumanising and marginalising people by using group nouns like “the disabled” or “the deafblind”. 

A man and a woman talking in a yellow room with a family photo hanging on the wall

Victimising language

Disability is an integral part of someone’s being – it’s part of who they are, not what they are. People with disabilities don’t want to be pitied or considered “inspirational” for simply existing. They are just people who happen to have disabilities. 

Don’t say

  • A person who suffers with (a condition)
  • Wheelchair-bound, confined to a wheelchair

Do say

  • A person who has (a condition)
  • Wheelchair user

Other words that have fallen out of use

You may have heard some of these words growing up, maybe even not being used with malicious intent. But these terms have a history of abuse and marginalisation, and are no longer used. 

Don’t say

  • Dumb or mute
  • Spastic
  • Mongoloid
  • Lame, cripple, invalid
  • Mentally retarded
  • Mental patient

Learn more ways you can make everyday life more inclusive for disabled people. Take our Left Out Of Life pledge and find out how you can help combat loneliness and isolation for people with disabilities.