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.

For a printable copy of this information, click here.

Objectionable Preferred
(the) disabled(the) mentally retarded

(the) deaf

(the) blind

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;

deaf citizens;

blind people

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

speech 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

wheelchair using

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

gimp, gimpy


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

emotional disability

former mental patientretard, slow, simple-minded, idiot, Mongoloid Demeaning mentally restoredpeople with mental retardation
spastic, spazzhas fits Demeaning has seizureshas cerebral palsy

has epilepsy

“special” Distancing and inappropriately patronizing.  Describes that which is different about ANY person. none is needed
physically challengedhandi-capable



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.