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Inclusive Language

Ability and Disability: Recommended Language

Commonly Used Phrases:

Recommended Language:

Suggested Alternative

Able-bodied, non-disabled, enabled, typical, normal

Able-bodied describes someone who does not identify as having a disability. “Able-bodied” is an appropriate term to use in some cases, such as when referring to government reports on the proportion of able-bodied members in the workforce. Some members of the disability community oppose its use because it implies that all people with disabilities lack “able bodies” or the ability to use their bodies well. They may prefer “non-disabled” or “enabled” as being more accurate. 


The term “non-disabled” and the phrases “does not have a disability” or “is not living with a disability” are more neutral choices. In some cases, the word “typical” can be used to describe a non-disabled condition, although be aware that some in the disability community object to its use. 


Avoid using the word “normal” when referring to people without disabilities.



“Does not have a disability” 


“Is not living with a disability”

Autism, autism spectrum disorder,


Autism spectrum disorder is a group of complex disorders related to brain development, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Common symptoms of autism spectrum disorder include difficulties in communication, impaired social interaction, and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities, according to the NIMH. However, symptoms vary across the spectrum. Many experts classify autism as a developmental disability.


Prior to 2013, subtypes of autism, such as Asperger’s syndrome, autism disorder, and childhood disintegrative disorder, were classified as distinct disorders. The fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders consolidates all autism disorders under the more extensive autism spectrum disorder diagnosis.


Opinions vary on how to refer to someone with autism. Some people with autism prefer being referred to as “autistic” or as an “autistic person.” Others object to using autistic as an adjective.


Refer to someone with autistic spectrum disorder only if the information is relevant, and if you are confident that there is a medical diagnosis. Ask individuals how they prefer to be described. Many prefer to be described as “autistic,” while others prefer “an autistic person” or a “person with autism.”

“An autistic person”


“A person with autism”



Bipolar, bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness believed to be caused by a combination of genetic factors and neurological functioning, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. It is characterized by unusually intense shifts in emotion, energy, behavior, and activity levels in what are called “mood episodes.” Such episodes are usually classified as manic, hypomanic, depressive, or mixed episodes. Bipolar disorder often develops during late adolescence or early adulthood.


Refer to someone as having “bipolar disorder” only if the information is relevant to the story and you are confident there is a medical diagnosis. If a medical diagnosis is unavailable, use quotes around the term and indicate that a diagnosis has not been confirmed. 


Do not use “bipolar” as an adjective for something other than a medical condition. For example, stating, "I'm so bipolar" when referring to something that rapidly or drastically changes.

“A person with bipolar disorder”

Blind, legally blind, limited vision, low vision, partially sighted, visually impaired

Total blindness is the complete lack of perception of either light or form. However, only about 15% of those with eye conditions are totally blind. “Legally blind” is a broad term for various eye conditions but generally refers to someone whose visual acuity is 20/200 or less, even with corrective glasses or contact lenses. Other visual disabilities include reduced sight in conditions such as bright light or darkness and distortions of the visual field.


In general, “blind” or “legally blind” is acceptable for people with complete, or almost complete, vision loss. For others who have a loss of vision, the American Foundation for the Blind uses the term “low vision,” which it describes as “uncorrectable vision loss that interferes with daily activities.” The foundation says that other terms commonly used to describe vision loss – “partial sight,” “partial blindness,” and “poor vision” – are no longer in general use.


The foundation also uses the term “visually impaired,” but some object to the use of the words “impair” or “impairment” when describing a disability.


“Blind” may be used for people with complete or almost complete lack of sight. Other terms are acceptable for those with some vision loss. Many prefer “blind” or “blind person,” while others prefer “a person with blindness.” Other commonly used terms include:


Limited vision: Acceptable when a person is not legally or entirely blind

Low vision: Acceptable when a person is not wholly or legally blind

Partially sighted: Used most often in British publications for those not legally or entirely blind, but less acceptable in the U.S.

Visually impaired: Similar to the term “hearing impaired,” some may object to it because it describes the condition in terms of a deficiency.



“Blind person”


“A person with blindness”


“Legally Blind”


“Low vision”


“Visually impaired”


“Partially sighted”

Congenital disability, defect, birth defect

A person with a congenital disability has had a disability since birth. Common congenital disabilities include Down syndrome, heart-related medical conditions, and most forms of cerebral palsy. “Congenital” is not interchangeable with “genetic,” as a genetic condition is present from birth, but a congenital condition is not necessarily genetic.


It is acceptable to state that someone has a congenital disability or lives with a congenital disability. Alternatively, it is acceptable to say that a person “has had a disability since birth” or “was born with a disability.” State the specific disability if possible. Avoid using “defect” or “defective” when describing a disability because the terms imply that the person is somehow incomplete or sub-par.

“Has a congenital disease”


“Lives with a congenital disease”


“Has had a disability since birth”


“Was born with a disability”

Crazy, loony, mad, psycho, nuts, deranged

These words were once commonly used to describe people with mental illness, but are now considered offensive. They are still used in a variety of contexts but should be avoided.


Do not use these words, particularly when discussing mental illness, unless they are part of a quote that is essential to the story.

Do not use these words, particularly when discussing mental illness. 

Cripple, crippled, crip

Merriam-Webster defines the noun “cripple” as “a lame or partly disabled person or animal” and as “something flawed or imperfect.” It also is used as a verb. The word dates to Old English, which was related to words that meant “to creep” or “bend over.” According to the blog, it became offensive in the early 20th century and was replaced by “handicapped” and then by “disabled.”


Recently, some disability activists have reclaimed the word. Jon Henner, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who is deaf, describes himself as a “crip linguist.”


While some activists have embraced the word, adopting hashtags such as “#CripLit” and “#CripTheVote,” others are very much against its use. Keah Brown, a writer, and disability activist with cerebral palsy tweeted in 2018: “I just really can’t stand the word cripple, so whenever I see it, I block it out. I legit ignore every notification with the word in it.”


Unless you are disabled, avoid using “cripple” as either a noun or verb unless you are describing the “crip” movement or if it’s in a direct quote.

Unless you are disabled, avoid using “cripple” as either a noun or verb unless you are describing the “crip” movement or if it’s in a direct quote.

Deaf, deaf, hard of hearing

The word “deaf” describes a person with profound or complete hearing loss. It is essential to understand that many people do not consider being deaf or having hearing loss as a disability. Instead, deafness is often considered a culture.


“Deaf” and “hard of hearing” are the terms recommended by the World Federation of the Deaf and The National Association of the Deaf. Many people in the Deaf community prefer the use of a lowercase “d” to refer to audiological status and the use of a capital “D” when referring to the culture and community of Deaf people. Some people with mild to moderate hearing loss may affiliate themselves with the Deaf community and prefer to be referred to as “deaf” instead of “hard of hearing.” Alternatively, some who are profoundly deaf may prefer the term “hard of hearing.”


“Deaf” or “hard of hearing” are the preferred terms. Uppercase when referring to the “Deaf” community and lowercase when referring to the condition. Avoid using “hearing impaired,” or “partial,” or “partially” to refer to deafness or hearing loss unless people use those terms for themselves.


When possible, ask if a person or group uses identity-first language (deaf students) or person-first language (students who are deaf). However, the identity-first approach is generally acceptable.

“Deaf” (when referring to the Deaf community)


“deaf” (when referring to the condition)


“Hard of hearing”

Disabled, disability

“Disability” and “disabled” typically describe functional limitations that affect one or more of the major life activities, including walking, lifting, learning, and breathing.


While it is usually acceptable to use these terms, remember that disability and people who have disabilities are not monolithic. Avoid referring to “the disabled.” When describing individuals, do not reference disabilities unless it is relevant. When possible, refer to a person’s specific condition.




Dwarf,  little person, midget, short stature

Dwarfism is a medical or genetic condition that results in a stature below 4’10,” according to Little People of America. The average height of a dwarf is 4’0.”


The use of the word “dwarf” is considered acceptable when referring to the genetic condition. Still, it is often regarded as offensive when used in a non-medical sense.


The term “midget” was used to describe an unusually short and proportionate person. It is now widely considered a derogatory slur.


The terms “little people” and “little person” refer to people of short stature and have come into common use since the founding of the Little People of America organization in 1957. The appropriateness of the terms is disputed by those within and outside the organization. However, Little People of America recommends using the descriptors “short stature,” “little person,” or “someone with dwarfism.”


You may refer to a person’s short stature if it is relevant. It is best to ask people which term they prefer to describe them. Use the term “dwarf” only when applied to a medical diagnosis or in a quote. Avoid the terms “vertically challenged” and “midget.”

“Dwarf“ in reference to a medical condition


“Short stature”


“Little person”


“Someone with

Handicap, handicapped, handicapable

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “handicap” as “a physical disability (as a bodily impairment or a devastating disease).” The term has fallen out of favor in the disability community. In 2009, the television show “Glee” introduced the term “handicapable” as a positive alternative to other ways of referring to people with disabilities. However, its use is relatively rare and not generally accepted.


Avoid using “handicap” and “handicapped” when describing a person. Instead, refer to the person’s specific condition or use “person with a disability.” The terms are still widely used and generally acceptable when citing laws, regulations, places, or things, such as “handicapped parking.” However, many prefer the term “accessible parking.”

“A person with a disability”

Learning disability, mentally retarded, retard, mental retardation, slow learner, special needs

According to the University of Kansas Research & Training Center on Independent Living, a learning disability “describes a neurologically based condition that may manifest itself as difficulty learning and using skills in reading (called dyslexia), writing (dysgraphia), mathematics (dyscalculia) and other cognitive processes due to differences in how the brain processes information. Individuals with learning disabilities have average or above average intelligence. The term does not include a learning problem that is primarily the result of another cause, such as intellectual disabilities or lack of educational opportunity.”


Use “learning disability” when you’re confident there is a medical diagnosis. If a medical diagnosis is not available, use quotes around the term and indicate that a diagnosis has not been confirmed. 


Do not substitute “slow learner,” or any variation of the word “retarded” as they are outdated and offensive.

“Learning disability”

Mental illness, mental disorder, insane, mentally deranged

“Mental illness” is an umbrella term for many different conditions that affect how individuals act, think, feel or perceive the world. The most common forms of mental illness are anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and schizophrenia disorders. Severity and symptoms vary widely.


Because of perceived stigma, some people are calling for an end to the use of the term “mental illness,” suggesting instead “a person diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder” or “a person with a mental health history.” Some advocates recommend using the term “mental health experience.” However, the term “mental illness” is still widely used in medical and psychiatric professions.


The American Psychiatric Association offers a valuable media guide of appropriate terms. The association recommends using people-first language to describe mental illness to avoid defining people by their disabilities. “She experiences symptoms of psychosis” is preferable to “She is psychotic.” “He has a bipolar disorder” is preferable to “He is bipolar.”


The terms “mental illness” and “mental disorder” are not interchangeable. has a good discussion of the differences.


Refer to an individual’s mental illness only when it is relevant to the story, and you’re confident there is a medical diagnosis. Whenever possible, specify a person's illness rather than mental illness in general. Always refer to someone with a mental illness as a person first. Use quotes when officials or family members use a term such as “a history of mental illness” to refer to an individual, and when appropriate, indicate that the diagnosis has not been confirmed.


Avoid any variety of the word “insane” or “mentally deranged.” Do not use terms such as “schizophrenic,” “psychotic,” or self-diagnosing language such as “I'm OCD,” and “I’m having an anxiety attack right now,” unless these mental illnesses have been diagnosed.

“A person diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder”


“A person with a mental health history”


“Mental health experience”


“They experience symptoms of” 

Mute, deaf-mute, dumb

“Dumb” was once widely used to describe a person who could not speak and implied the person was incapable of expressing themself; it eventually came to be synonymous with “silent.”


“Mute” and “deaf-mute” were traditionally used to refer to people who can neither speak nor hear in traditional ways. However, people with speech and hearing disabilities can express themselves in writing, through sign language, and in other ways. Additionally, a person who does not use speech may be able to hear.


Avoid these terms, as they often are used inaccurately and can be offensive. It is acceptable to refer to someone as deaf or hard of hearing. If possible, ask the person which is preferable. Mute and dumb imply that communication is not possible. Instead, be as specific as possible. If someone uses American Sign Language, lip-reads, or uses other means to communicate, state that.

Avoid these terms, as they often are used inaccurately and can be offensive.

Neurodiversity, neurotypical

The Oxford English Dictionary defines neurodiversity as “the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits, regarded as part of the normal variation in the human population (used especially in the context of autism spectrum disorders).” The word was coined in the late 1990s.


Neurodiversity means that brains operate differently. An advocacy movement around this concept argues against the idea that there is one ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’ type of brain or mind or one ‘right’ style of neurocognitive functioning.


“Neurotypical” refers to a person who is considered part of the normal variation in the human population.


Neurodiversity can be used to describe someone on the autism spectrum, but because it’s a relatively new term, consider offering the definition when you use it, particularly in work meant for a mainstream audience. Some in the autism community object to the term.




Wheelchair, wheelchair-bound, confined to a wheelchair

People who use mobility equipment such as a wheelchair, scooter, or cane consider the equipment part of their personal space, according to the United Spinal Association. People who use wheelchairs have widely different disabilities and varying abilities.


Avoid “confined to a wheelchair” or “wheelchair-bound” as these terms describe a person only in relation to a piece of equipment. The terms also are misleading, as wheelchairs can liberate people, allowing them to move about, and they are inaccurate, as people who use wheelchairs are not permanently confined to them but are transferred to sleep, sit in chairs, drive cars, etc.


It is acceptable to describe a person as “someone who uses a wheelchair,” followed by an explanation of why the equipment is required. 

“Someone who uses a wheelchair”


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