Communicating About People with Disabilities

September 8, 2020
Communicating About People with Disabilities

The following guidelines are suggestions for writing, reporting, and speaking to or about people with disabilities. As language evolves, we will continue to update this information and invite others to let us know your thoughts about language.

Something you can do today is avoid using the terms special needs and special education. Instead, use access needs, education, and education for student with disabilities. If you are referring to terms used in federal legislation or statutory language, you put the term in quotes or even footnote the term explaining that the language is outdated or archaic. Right now, there’s federal legislation and statutory language that uses outdated terminology when it comes to disability. Updates to this language must be done by lawmakers and require legislative action and changes in the law. Please be aware that even though you may see archaic or offensive language in the law, it is not commonly used by the public and in some cases, shouldn’t be.

First and foremost, refer to a person with a disability by their name.

Person-First vs. Identity-First Language

For many years, language used to describe people with disabilities emphasized or focused on their disability, rather than their personhood. A movement of advocates urged the adoption of language that focused on the person – person-first language, which uses possessive language to refer to disabilities (i.e. Jenny has a disability). Person-first language avoids putting a label or condition prior to an individual’s name or title. Stated simply, person-first language places an individual prior to her or his disability:

  • Kate and Will’s daughter, Judy, who has low vision, was accepted to Yale.
  • Dae, who has a mental illness, asked his employer for a reasonable accommodation of working remotely as needed.
  • Jenny, an 18-year-old soccer player, has a prosthetic limb.

More recently, a new generation has embraced their disabilities as an essential part of their identity and use identity-first language (i.e. Jenny is disabled):

  • Deaf individuals like Naeem often must make sure their smoke alarms have strobe alerts.
  • Gene, who is Autistic, uses his iPad to participate in discussions.
  • Carla is a disabled activist with a large Twitter following.

Recommendation: Ask the person you are speaking to or writing about how they wish to be identified. If you are unable to determine the preferred terminology of your subject, use person-first language. If you are going to use identity-first language, consider providing a disclaimer to your article like the Center for American Progress did in this October 2020 article.


Please consider the following when writing about people with disabilities:

Focus on the Issues

Unless it is crucial to a story, avoid tear-jerking human-interest stories about incurable diseases, congenital impairments, or severe injury. Focus instead on issues that affect the quality of life for those same individuals, such as accessible transportation, housing, affordable health care, employment opportunities, and discrimination.

People with disabilities should never be referred to as patients or cases unless their relationship with their doctor is under discussion. Don’t imply that someone with a disability needs a “cure” or needs to be “fixed.” No Pity is a popular concept in the disability community, a declaration that people aren’t objects of pity – they’re people with rights.

Think About Your Framing

When speaking to a person with a disability’s success, avoid framing the success solely because the person has accomplished something “in spite” of their disability or “overcome” it. They aren’t superhuman or heroes. In the same vein, avoid sensationalizing the disability experience itself. Don’t use terms like “afflicted with,” “suffers from,” “victim of,” “wheelchair-bound,” etc. when referring to a person’s disability.

Avoid Using Euphemisms

Don’t use “differently-abled,” “physically challenged,” “handi-capable,” or “special needs.” Don’t ever use “the r-word,” or “crippled.” Using these terms is considered condescending and offensive, implying that people with disabilities are somehow broken, less than or deficient. Disability is a natural part of the human experience.

Additional Resources

Disability Culture 101 by Virginia Knowlton Marcus

Choosing Words for Talking About Disability by the American Psychological Association

Disability Language Style Guide from the National Center on Disability and Journalism

Page last updated: October 27, 2020