Paul K. Longmore, Ph.D., Author and Historian
Diane B. Piastro, Syndicated Columnist
Language reflects and reinforces our perceptions and misperceptions of others. All too frequently the terms used for people with disabilities perpetuate stereotypes and false ideas. This guide is offered as one means to “unhandicap” our language and thinking. It is selective, not exhaustive. It is intended as a suggestion, not censorship.
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|(the) disabled(the) mentally retarded
|Sees people only in terms of their disabilities. Robs us of individuality by lumping people into one undifferentiated category. Humanizing nouns emphasize the person.||people with disabilities;persons with mental retardation;
|abnormal||Sees people with disabilities as less human than others||none is needed|
|(birth) defecteddefective||Describes as an object, dehumanizes a person||congenital disability|
|Mrs. Kelly is an arthritic patient.||Sees someone as an object of medical care.||Mrs. Kelly has arthritis.|
|Mr. Cullen was afflicted with, stricken with, or suffers from polio||Connotes helplessness, dependency, defect. Denies other aspects of the person.||Mr. Cullen had polio.|
|victim”FDR was a polio victim”||Connotes pitiful helplessness.||state the facts – FDR had polio|
|invalid||From the same root as “inVALid”. Inaccurate, most people with disabilities are not sickly.||none is needed|
|deaf and dumbdeaf-mute
four eyes, blind as a bat
|Implies mental incapacitation occurs with hearing loss and/or speech impairment, inaccurate, demeaning||deafhearing impaired
partially sighted, vision impaired
|No epithet is more offensive to people with physical disabilities. From Old English “to creep”. A second meaning of this adjective is “inferior”.||FDR had a physical disability. FDR had polio.|
|confined to a wheelchairwheelchair bound
|Creates a false impression, wheelchairs liberate, not confine or bind; they are mobility tools from which people transfer to sleep, sit in chairs, drive cars, etc.||wheelchair useruses a wheelchair
|Handel was epilepticRenoir was arthritic
Geri Jewell is cerebral palsied
|These usages see people as their disabilities. Inaccurate references, a person is not a condition.||Handel had epilepsy.Renoir had arthritis.
Geri Jewell has cerebral palsy.
|deformedmisshapen||Denotes repulsive oddity.||has a physical disability|
|hunchbacked||Demeaning||has a spinal curvature|
|Demeaning||walks with a caneuses crutches
Senator Dole has a disabled hand.
|Robs people with severe disabilities of their humanity.||The child has multiple or severe disability.|
|mentally illcrazy, insane
psycho, nut, maniac
|Outdated and stigmatizing||mental disabilitybehavior disorder
|former mental patientretard, slow, simple-minded, idiot, Mongoloid||Demeaning||mentally restoredpeople with mental retardation|
|spastic, spazzhas fits||Demeaning||has seizureshas cerebral palsy
|“special”||Distancing and inappropriately patronizing. Describes that which is different about ANY person.||none is needed|
|Euphemisms avoid reality and rob people of dignity. Cutesy-pie labels are uninformative and trivialzie an important part of a person’s identity.||a person has a physical, sensory or mental disability|
|inspirationalcourageous||People with disabilities are not collectively inspirational or courageous.||acknowledge the person’s abilities and individuality|
|“Isn’t it wonderful how he has overcome his disability?”||Inaccurate. People live with a disability. They have to overcome attitudinal, social, architectural, educational, transportation and employment barriers.||Accept people for who they are, including that they have a disability.|