Reporting and Writing About People with Disabilities

February 15, 2017
Reporting and Writing About People with Disabilities

The following guidelines are suggestions for using language in a more sensitive manner that avoids reducing individuals to a series of labels, symptoms, or medical terms. Advocating for media representatives to be aware of how they use language regarding individuals with disabilities and their families does not suppress freedom of speech. Rather, these suggestions are intended to guide media representatives about how words really do make a difference.

The Importance of Putting People First

Media representatives know how important it is to use language carefully. When communicating about individuals, it is good practice to avoid putting a label or condition prior to an individual’s name or title. Many subjects that are reported about already use person-first language. Think of all the times you have read or heard something similar to the following examples:

  • Susan, who was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, is now in remission.
  • Jim experiences memory problems as a result of a brain injury caused by a car accident.
  • Jenny has fibromyalgia, a condition that causes symptoms such as muscle spasms, pain, weakness and fatigue.

When it comes to reporting about individuals with disabilities and their families, however, it is still far too common to place the disability before the person. Phrases such as ‘Jim is a retarded 48-year-old,’ is an example of how some communicators still place a disability prior to an individual. Stated simply, person-first language places an individual prior to her or his disability. For example, if Judy has low vision or is blind, you would place Judy first in the sentence even if the story directly deals with her disability: “Kate and Will’s daughter, Judy, is an 18-year-old soccer player who has low vision.”

Grammar and Terminology

able-bodied: The term able-bodied should be avoided and is not accurate to describe a person who does not have a disability. Accessible environments and adaptive equipment allow many individuals with disabilities to be able-bodied. Use the term non-disabled or the phrase does not experience a disability when it is necessary to distinguish that a person does not have a disability. Avoid using the term able-bodied.

accessible, accessibility: Use accessible when describing a space, location or event that is modified to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Accessible modifications allow unrestricted admittance to accommodate individuals who may or may not use a wheelchair as a result of mobility impairments as well as individuals who may have sensory impairments. The term accessibility also includes modifications for individuals who communicate in different languages, have hearing or vision impairments, and other cognitive and learning disabilities.

ADA: Americans with Disabilities Act.

autism: Autism is characterized by indicators such as significant language dysfunction, difficulty interacting socially, and repetitive behavior. Use the phrase individual with autism. Avoid the term autistic.

congenital disability: Congenital disability describes a disability that has existed since birth but is not necessarily hereditary.

deaf/hard of hearing: The D/deaf community prefers the term deaf or hard of hearing; “hearing impaired” implies a medical/pathological view. People who are Deaf (big “D” connoting cultural view) view themselves as a linguistic minority.

deinstitutionalization: A movement that strives to relocate individuals with disabilities from segregated institutional environments to supportive and inclusive community settings.

developmental disability: Any mental and/or physical disability starting before the age of 22 and continuing indefinitely. It limits one or more major life activities such as self-care, language, learning, mobility, self-direction, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency.

disability: A term used to define factor(s) that limit significant life activities or experiences considered to be typical among individuals who do not experience a disability. Such restrictions may be permanent or temporary, and may fluctuate depending upon the disability and the resources available.

Down syndrome: Not Down’s syndrome.

inclusion: A term that implies that all individuals with a disability, regardless of their ability, are part of typical classrooms, schools, local and world communities. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and its 1997 amendments make it clear that schools have a duty to educate children with disabilities in general education classrooms.

mental disability: The Federal Rehabilitation Act (Section 504) lists four categories under mental disability: psychiatric disability; retardation; learning disability; or cognitive impairment.

person-first language: person-first language seeks to avoid reducing people to a set of labels. When writing about disability or health-related issues, this effort avoids placing a disability or condition before an individual. We are all people first, no matter what labels we have acquired.

Seeing Eye Dog: A trademark for a guide dog trained by Seeing Eye Inc. of Morristown, N.J. Use companion animal or service animal.

special education: Educational services including instruction, as well as related services such as occupational therapy, physical therapy, psychology, and speech and language therapy that are designed to ensure students with disabilities receive the supports and services needed to meet educational goals.

wheelchair: Avoid the phrases confined to a wheelchair or wheelchair user. Instead, use phrases such as uses a wheelchair, and other person-first configurations that focus on ability rather than limitations.


Please consider the following when writing about people with disabilities:

DO NOT FOCUS ON DISABILITY 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.


AVOID USING EUPHAMISMS such as “differently abled,” “physically challenged,” or “handi-capable,” as such are considered condescending by many individuals with disabilities.

AVOID SENSATIONALIZING a disability by saying “afflicted with,” “suffers from,” “victim of,” etc.

AVOID GROUP DESIGNATIONS such as “the blind,” “the deinstitutionalized,” or “the disabled,” as they do not reflect the individuality or dignity of people with disabilities.

DO NOT IMPLY DISEASE. When discussing disabilities that result from a prior disease episode, they are notcurrently experiencing the disease. For instance, people who had polio and experienced after effects have post-polio syndrome. Do not imply disease with people whose disability has resulted from anatomical or physiological damage (e.g., person with spina bifida or cerebral palsy). Reference to disease associated with a disability is acceptable only with chronic diseases, such as arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, or multiple sclerosis. People with disabilities should never be referred to as patients or cases unless their relationship with their doctor is under discussion.

SHOW PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES AS ACTIVE participants of society. Portraying persons with disabilities interacting with those without disabilities in social and work environments helps break down barriers and open lines of communications.


adapted from “Think Ability,” President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities (1999)

Perhaps even more than language, attitudes can influence interactions with people with disabilities. Even if you personally do not have any of the following attitudes, your readers may, and people with disabilities will have experienced them from others, and may thus be wary. Some of the attitudinal barriers are:

Pity: People feel sorry for the person with a disability, which tends to lead to patronizing attitudes. People with disabilities generally do not want pity and charity, just equal opportunity.

Ignorance: People with disabilities are often dismissed as incapable of accomplishing a task without the opportunity to display their skills. In fact, people with quadriplegia can drive cars and have children. People who are blind can tell time on a watch and visit museums. People who are deaf can enjoy music. People with developmental disabilities can be creative and maintain strong work ethics.

The Spread Effect: People assume that an individual’s disability negatively affects other senses, abilities, or personality traits. For example, many people shout at people who are blind or do not expect people using wheelchairs to have the intelligence to speak for themselves. Focusing on the person’s abilities rather than his or her disability counters this type of prejudice.

Stereotypes: The other side of the spread effect is the positive and negative generalizations people form about disabilities. For example, many believe that all people who are blind are great musicians or have a keener sense of smell and hearing; that all people who use wheelchairs are docile or compete in paralympics; that all people with developmental disabilities are innocent and sweet-natured; that all people with disabilities are sad and bitter. Aside from diminishing the individual and his or her abilities, such prejudice can set too high or too low a standard for individuals who are merely human.

Backlash: Many people believe individuals with disabilities are given unfair advantages, such as easier work requirements. Employers need to hold people with disabilities to the same job standards as co-workers, thought the means of accomplishing the tasks may differ from person to person. The ADA does not require special privileges for people with disabilities, just equal opportunities.

Denial: Many disabilities are “hidden,” such as learning disabilities, psychiatric disabilities, epilepsy, cancer, arthritis, and heart conditions. People tend to believe these are not bona fide disabilities needing accommodation. The ADA defines “disability” as an impairment that “substantially limits one or more of the major life activities.” Whether a condition is visible or not, it still can result in substantial limitations.