Terms to Avoid When Writing About Disability

NCDJ is publishing this list in conjunction with an updated style guide intended for journalists and members of the general public who are seeking the appropriate and accurate language to use when writing or talking about people living with disabilities.

What is considered acceptable language regarding disabilities has changed dramatically over time, and standards continue to adapt as understanding and perceptions evolve. Many of the terms below were once widely used and were not always considered offensive, but now are widely considered to imply inferiority or have other negative connotations. Others are outdated medical or colloquial term

Here are a few terms to avoid:

Abnormal: Inappropriate when used to describe an individual. See entry on abnormal.

Afflicted with: Implies that a person with a disability is suffering or has a reduced quality of life. See entry on afflicted.

Able-bodied: Refers to a person who does not have a disability. The term implies that all people with disabilities lack “able bodies” or the ability to use their bodies well. See able-bodied entry. 

Confined to a wheelchair: Describes a person only in relationship to a piece of equipment designed to liberate rather than confine. See wheelchair entry.

Crazy, insane, nuts, psycho: All are considered offensive and should not be used except in direct quotes. See mental health. 

Deaf and dumb/deaf-mute: Avoid these terms as they are often used inaccurately and can be offensive. See deaf and dumb/deaf-mute entry.

Defect, birth defect, defective: Avoid these terms when describing a disability because they imply the person is somehow incomplete or sub-par. See entry on congenital disability.

Demented, senile: Avoid describing someone as being demented or senile. Use people-first language when describing someone with dementia, such as “a person with dementia.” See entry on dementia/senility.

Epileptic fit: The term seizure is preferred when referring to the brief manifestation of symptoms common among those with epilepsy. Avoid stating that the person had a fit or an epileptic fit. See entry on epilepsy/epileptic fit.

Loony, loony bin, lunatic: All are considered offensive and should not be used except in direct quotes. See mental health entry.

Mentally retarded: Always try to specify the type of disability being referenced. Otherwise, the terms mental disability, intellectual disability and developmental disability are acceptable. See entry on mentally retarded/mentally disabled, intellectually disabled, developmentally disabled.

Midget: The term was used in the past to describe an unusually short and proportionate person. It is now widely considered derogatory. See entry on Dwarf/little person/midget/short stature.

Paraplegic: Avoid referring to an individual as a paraplegic. Instead, say the person has paraplegia. See entry on paraplegia/paraplegic.

Psychotic: Avoid using psychotic to describe a person; instead refer to a person as having a psychotic condition or psychosis. See entry on psychotic/psychosis.

Quadriplegic: Use people-first language, such as “a person with quadriplegia” rather than quadriplegic, See entry on quadriplegia/quadriplegic/tetraplegia.

Schizophrenic: Use people-first language, stating that someone is “a person with schizophrenia” or “a person diagnosed with schizophrenia” rather than a schizophrenic or a schizophrenic person. See entry on Schizophrenia/schizophrenic.

Spastic or a spaz. It is acceptable to refer to someone as having spastic cerebral palsy, but it is derogatory to refer to someone as spastic or a spaz. See entry on cerebral palsy. 

Stricken with, suffers from, victim of: These terms carry the assumption that a person with a disability is suffering or has a reduced quality of life. See entry on afflicted with

Vegetable: Use people-first language, such as “a person in a vegetative state.” Avoid referring to someone as a vegetable or “veg” as such words dehumanize the person. See entry on vegetative state/comatose/non-responsive.

2 Responses

  1. […] with a guide, a NCDJ also has combined a messenger piece, “Terms to Avoid When Writing About Disability.” The essay offers recommendation to communicators on because they should equivocate regulating […]

  2. […] New style guide on writing about disabilities (see also their Terms to Avoid) […]

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