Person-First Language: A Partial Glossary of Disability Terms

We know that language shapes perceptions, so a small word choice can make a big difference in communicating attitudes towards people with disabilities and assumptions about the quality of their lives.

Person- first language literally puts the person first instead of his or her disability. By referring to an individual as a person with a disability instead of a disabled person, you are providing an objective description instead of a label. While opinions differ on some words, this list offers preferred terms for many visible and invisible disabilities, illustrated with person-first language.

Reprinted with permission from the the RTC/ILRead the original text.

AD/HD (Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) is the clinical diagnosis for a genetic neurobehavioral condition that is characterized by symptoms in three categories: inattention, excessive activity and impulsive behavior. While the medical community includes ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) as a subset of this condition, disability advocates consider the two conditions as distinctly different. A person who has ADD has difficulty focusing attention and a high level of distractibility, but does not experience hyperactivity or impulsive behavior. Say person with ADHD or student with ADD. Do not use hyper or lazy.

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) refers to a group of complex disorders of brain development that may cause difficulty with social interactions, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. In terms of symptoms, Asperger’s syndrome is on the milder end of the spectrum. People with an ASD can have severe limitations in one area with no limitations in others. Use child with autism or Asperger’s syndrome or person on the spectrum. Do not say autistic. (See also “A Few Exceptions.”)

Blind describes a condition in which a person has loss of sight for ordinary life purposes. A person is legally blind when vision with best correction is no better than 20/200. Low vision and vision loss are generic terms for vision loss caused by macular degeneration and other conditions. Low vision usually denotes someone who is legally blind, but can still see large print, bright colors, light and shadow and large shapes, while vision loss refers to those who have lost vision after birth. Say boy who is blind, girl who has low vision, or man who is legally blind. (You may ask which term best suits the person.) Some blind people consider themselves visual thinkers so they regard visually impaired and visually challenged as negative terms.

Chemical and/or electrical sensitivities describe chronic medical conditions characterized by neurological impairment, muscle pain and weakness, respiratory problems and gastrointestinal complaints. Reactions for those with chemical sensitivities are triggered by low-level exposure to everyday substances and products including pesticides, solvents, cleaning agents, new carpeting and adhesives, and fragrances and scented products. Electrical sensitivities are triggered by electromagnetic fields from electrical devices and frequencies. These conditions are also called toxicant-induced loss of tolerance, environmental illness, or sick building syndrome. Use person with chemical intolerance or people with environmental illness. People with this condition should not be called chemophobic or described with the term idiopathic environmental intolerance.

Chronic fatigue syndrome refers to a chronic condition in which individuals experience six or more months of fatigue accompanied by physical and cognitive symptoms. Chronic fatigue, immune dysfunction syndrome, and myalgic encephalomyelitis are currently preferred. Do not say Yuppie Flu. Also, don’t confuse this syndrome with overlapping or similar conditions such as Epstein-Barr virus syndrome and fibromyalgia.

Cleft palate or lip describes a specific congenital disability involving the lip and gum. Say person who has a cleft palate. The term hare lip is anatomically incorrect and stigmatizing.

Congenital disability describes a disability that has existed since birth but is not necessarily hereditary. Use person with a congenital disability or disability since birth. Do not say birth defect or deformity.

Deaf refers to a profound degree of hearing loss that prevents understanding speech through the ear. Hearing impaired or hearing loss are generic terms used by some individuals to indicate any degree of hearing loss, from mild to profound, although some dislike the negative term impaired. Hard of hearing refers to a mild to moderate hearing loss that may or may not be corrected with amplification. A person who has hearing difficulties may have speech difficulties, too, but deafness does not affect mental abilities. Say woman who is deaf or boy who is hard of hearing. People who have some degree of both hearing and vision loss prefer the term deaf-blind. Also acceptable is person with combined vision and hearing loss or dual sensory loss. Never use deaf and dumb. (See also “A Few Exceptions.”)

Developmental disability is a broad term that describes any physical and/or mental disability that starts before the age of 22. Examples include cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorders and sensory impairments. People with developmental disabilities have a wide range of functioning levels and disabilities. Although the term intellectual disability is often used in conjunction with developmental disability, many people with a developmental disability do not have an intellectual disability. Say she has cerebral palsy, he has autism, or he has a developmental disability. Do not say she is mentally retarded.

Disability is a general term used for an attribute or a functional limitation that interferes with a person’s ability, for example, to walk, lift or learn. It may refer to a physical, sensory or mental condition such as depression, irritable bowel syndrome, Lyme disease, post-traumatic stress syndrome, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and other conditions that restrict the activities of daily living. Do not use the term handicapped because many people with disabilities consider it offensive.

We recognize the need for succinctness, but when possible, avoid using the disabled as a generic label. It describes a condition, not people, and has connotations of “non-functioning” (as in a disabled car). It also implies a homogenous group that is separate from the rest of society. Instead use people with disabilities or the disability community.

Disfigurement refers to physical changes caused by burns, trauma, disease or congenital conditions. Do not say burn victim. Say burn survivor or child who has burns.

Down syndrome describes a chromosomal disorder that causes a delay in physical, intellectual and language development. Say person with Down syndrome. Do not use Mongol, mongoloid or Down person.

HIV/AIDS is a disease of the immune system. Over time, HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) can weaken the immune system to a point where the body becomes susceptible to certain illnesses that healthy immune systems resist. People with HIV are diagnosed with AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) when one or more specific conditions are met. Use person living with HIV or people who have AIDS. Do not use AIDS victim.

Intellectual disability refers to limitations in intellectual functioning and adaptive behaviors that require environmental or personal supports for the individual to live independently. Though mental retardation was previously an accepted clinical term, many consider it an insult, so people who have this condition, their families and related organizations have campaigned to end its use. (See “Rosa’s Law and the Language of Bullying.”) Say people with intellectual disabilities. Do not use retarded, mentally retarded, or subnormal.

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, and 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. Say person with a learning disability. Do not use slow learner or retarded.

Nondisabled is the preferred term when the context calls for a comparison between people with and without disabilities. Use nondisabled or people without disabilities instead of healthy, able-bodied, normal, or whole.

Post-polio syndrome is a condition that affects some persons who have had poliomyelitis (polio) long after recovery from the disease. It is characterized by new muscle weakness, joint and muscle pain and fatigue. Say person with post-polio syndrome. Do not use polio victim.

Psychiatric disability refers to a variety of psychological conditions. Say person with a psychiatric disability or mental illness. In a clinical context or for medical or legal accuracy, use schizophrenic, psychotic, and other diagnostic terms. Note, too, that bipolar disorder has replaced manic depression. Words such as crazy, maniac, lunatic, schizo, and psycho are offensive and should never be applied to people with mental health conditions.

Seizure describes an involuntary muscle contraction, a brief impairment or loss of consciousness resulting from a neurological condition such as epilepsy or from an acquired brain injury. Say girl with epilepsy or teen with a seizure disorder. The word convulsion should be used only for seizures involving contraction of the entire body. Do not use epileptic, fit, spastic, or attacks.

Service animal or service dog describes a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. In addition to guiding people who are blind, they may alert people who are deaf, pull wheelchairs, alert and protect a person who is having a seizure, remind a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, or calm a person with post- traumatic stress disorder during an anxiety attack. Miniature horses are also considered service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), though monkeys no longer are. Do not use seeing eye dog.

Short stature describes a variety of genetic conditions causing people to grow to less than 4’10” tall. Say person of short stature, although some prefer little people. Dwarfism is an accepted medical term, but should not be used as general terminology. Do not refer to these individuals as midgets because of its circus sideshow connotations.

Speech disability is a condition in which a person has limited or impaired speech patterns. Use child who has a speech disability. For a person without verbal speech capability, say person without speech. Do not use mute or dumb.

Spinal cord injury describes a condition in which there has been permanent damage to the spinal cord, resulting in some degree of paralysis. Quadriplegia denotes loss of function in all four extremities, while paraplegia refers to loss of function in the lower part of the body only; in both cases the individual might have some function in the affected limbs. While people with spinal cord injuries often refer to themselves as a para or a quad, communicators should use man with paraplegia, woman who is paralyzed, or person with a spinal cord injury. Don’t say cripple or handicapped.

Substance dependence refers to patterns of substance use that result in significant impairment in at least three life areas (family, employment, health, etc.) over any 12-month period. Although such terms as alcoholic and addict are medically acceptable, they may be derogatory to some individuals. Acceptable terms are people who are substance dependent or person who is alcohol dependent. Individuals who have a history of dependence on alcohol and/or drugs and are no longer using alcohol or drugs may identify themselves as recovering or as a person in recovery.

Survivor is used by people to affirm their recovery from or conquest of an adverse health condition such as cancer survivor, burn survivor, brain injury survivor, or stroke survivor. Don’t call them victims.