How to avoid using ableist language

ableist and people first language
Share this tip sheet:  

For adults who are allies


How to avoid using ableist language

DOWNLOAD THIS PDF

Ableist language is any word or phrase that devalues people who have a disability. Though often inadvertent, ableist language suggests that people with disabilities are abnormal.

Ableism isn’t simply a list of words we should not use, but paying attention to language can help us understand how embedded ableism really is in our communities.

Common examples of ableist language are words like, “lame,” “dumb,” “retarded,” “blind,” “deaf,” “idiot,” “imbecile,’ “nuts,” “psycho,” and “spaz.” These terms can be associated with a person’s identity or their challenges, and because of that, can be interpreted as insulting or hurtful. And every time people use them, they reinforce the idea that people with disabilities are somehow inferior.

Many of these words and phrases are used so casually that most don’t consciously realize they’re associated with disability. Remember, you’re not a bad person or ally if you’ve used these words before. But if you have the ability to change the language you use, it’s important to be aware of how language can perpetuate ableism.

To help, we’ve put together a list of words to help you get started thinking about language. This list isn’t meant to be comprehensive or prescriptive. Language changes frequently and so does our need to reevaluate how it can be used to reinforce ableism.
Some people use the word “retarded” or “stupid” when they mean:
  • Frustrating
  • Irritating
  • Annoying
  • Obnoxious
Some people use the word “spaz” or “retarded” when they mean:
  • Silly
  • Cheesy
  • Dorky
  • Nonsensical
Some people use “insane” or “crazy” when they mean:
  • Intense
  • Amazing
  • Really
  • Wicked
  • Awesome
  • Wild
  • Extremely
Some people use “lame” when they mean:
  • Bad
  • Uncool
  • Awful
  • Unpleasant
Some people use “lame” when they mean:
  • Shocking
  • Unbelievable
  • Overwhelming
  • Outrageous
  • Ridiculous
  • Bizarre
Some people use “psychopath” or “sociopath” when they mean:
  • Dangerous
  • Threatening
  • Menacing
  • Frightening

Using people first language

People first language emphasizes the person, not the disability. By placing the person first, the disability is no longer a person’s primary, defining characteristic. It’s simply one aspect of who they are. Using people first language helps to reduce stigma and stereotypes, but it’s just one way to do so.

The terms below are examples of people first language. While these suggestions are encouraged, just how a person wants to be identified is always a matter of personal preference. Not everyone uses people first language, so if you’re not sure, you can always politely ask an individual what term is best to use.
Say:
Instead of:
She has a disability/children with disabilities
Disabled child/children, the disabled/ handicapped/ crippled/deformed
He has a cognitive disability
He is mentally disabled/retarded
He has Down syndrome
He’s Down’s/a mongoloid
She has quadriplegia
She’s quadriplegic
She has a mental health condition/ mental illness
She is mentally ill/disturbed/retarded
He uses a wheelchair/mobility device/ communications device
He is confined to a wheelchair is wheelchair bound/ can’t speak
She receives special education services
She’s in special ed
He has a developmental delay/physical and developmental disability
He is developmentally delayed
Children without disabilities/ typically developing child
Normal kids
Dear Everybody, Nobody expects you to know everything about disability. Ask questions.
Say:
Instead of:
Does not move or speak/is non-verbal/ communicates with eyes, devices, etc…
Mute/can’t speak
He has a hearing impairment/is deaf
He is mute
Has a congenital disability/born without a limb
Birth defect/limbless/crippled
Brain injury
Brain damaged
She needs…she uses…
She has problems with…
Accessible parking
Handicapped parking
To learn more about ableism and ableist language, check out these disability advocates.

Autistic Hoya
Disability and Representation
The Body is not an Apology