Physical disability

The language of mental or physical disability

The language that is now considered suitable to refer to people with physical and mental disabilities is very different from that used a few decades ago. The changes are due partly to campaigns by organizations that promote the interests of particular groups of disabled people and partly to the public's increased sensitivity to the issues. People are now keen to avoid using terms that might reinforce any negative stereotypes of people with disabilities, in the same way that they try to avoid the racist or sexist terms that were once commonly used.

The word disabled itself came to be used as the standard term for referring to people with physical and mental disabilities from the 1960s onwards. It's still the most generally accepted term in both British and American English and has replaced terms that are now seen as offensive, such as crippled, handicapped, or mentally defective.

If you want to use appropriate language you not only need to avoid words which have been superseded, such as mongolism or backward. You should also try to do the following:

  • avoid using the + an adjective to refer to an entire group of people, such as ‘the blind’, ‘the deaf’, or ‘the disabled’. This type of collective term is seen as dehumanizing: in essence, it reduces the people with a disability to the disability itself. It also ignores the individuality of those people by lumping them together in an undifferentiated group. The preferred forms are now ‘a person with …’ or ‘people with ……’ wherever possible, i.e. ‘people with sight problems’, ‘people with disabilities’, etc. If that isn't suitable, use ‘blind people’, ‘disabled people’, and so on.

  • avoid using terms such as victim, suffer from, be afflicted with, or wheelchair-bound which suggest that the person concerned is the helpless object of the disability. Instead of suffer from, you can just say have:

Their youngest child has cystic fibrosis.

Another alternative is ‘be diagnosed with’:

In 1984, he was diagnosed with autism.

Rather than describing someone as wheelchair-bound, you can just say that they ‘use a wheelchair’.

  • avoid using words which once related to disabilities but which are now generally used as insults, such as mongol, cretin, spastic, schizo, dumb, etc.

Specific terms relating to disability

Here are some guidelines about specific terms relating to disability.

able-bodied

It's best to avoid using able-bodied to mean ‘not having a physical disability’, since many people with disabilities object to the implication that they are disabled in all physical respects. The preferred term is non-disabled.

Another alternative is abled. This is used in the phrase differently abled, where the intention is to suggest that those who are disabled may in fact have abilities that the non-disabled lack. Abled is also used on its own as a more positive alternative to disabled than non-disabled, as in this sentence:

Manchester will go down in history as the first city to have the Commonwealth games running together with both abled and disabled athletes.

backward

Describing a person who is not learning as fast as expected as backward is considered offensive. You should use the expressions with learning difficulties (or with learning difficulties), having learning difficulties (or having learning difficulties)or learning-disabled instead. In the USA, the standard descriptions are with learning disabilities or having learning disabilities.

blind

You should avoid referring to blind or partially-sighted people in society as ‘the blind’ or ‘the partially sighted’ as this kind of term is often seen as dehumanizing or patronizing. It is better to say blind people, partially sighted people, or visually impaired people, or to use the term people with sight problems. In 2007, the RNIB changed its name from ‘The Royal National Institute of the Blind’ to ‘The Royal National Institute of Blind People’.

bipolar disorder

People now tend to use the term bipolar disorder to refer to what was previously known as manic depression.

challenged

When the adjective challenged was first used in expressions such as physically challenged, it was intended as a more positive alternative to the terms disabled and handicapped. But people soon began to use it in ways that made fun of what was seen as a clumsy attempt at euphemism. A wide variety of humorous or ironic terms soon developed, including cerebrally challenged (i.e. stupid), conversationally challenged (i.e. boring), and follicularly challenged (i.e. bald).

As a result, you should avoid using the terms physically challenged or mentally challenged to refer to people with physical or mental disabilites. Your comments may be interpreted as mocking or inappropriately facetious.

cleft lip

Cleft lip is the standard accepted term, and should be used instead of harelip, which can cause offence.

conjoined twins

The more medically accurate term conjoined twins has replaced the older term Siamese twins in all situations other than informal conversation. You should always use this term in written English.

cripple, crippled

The word cripple is a very old one: its first recorded use in the sense ‘person unable to walk as a result of illness or disability’ is in AD 950. During the 20th century the term came to be seen as deeply offensive and it has now been replaced by broader terms such as ‘disabled person’ or ‘person with disabilities’. You should avoid using the noun cripple in all contexts.

The same is true of the adjective crippled in the sense ‘unable to walk properly as a result of illness or disability’: it can cause offence and should be avoided. But it's fine to use crippled to describe an object, system, or organization that has been severely damaged or harmed, as in this sentence:

The captain and co-pilot managed to guide the crippled aircraft toward an empty spot in the Hudson River.

deaf

You should avoid referring to deaf people as ‘the deaf’ or ‘the hard of hearing’ as this kind of term is often seen as dehumanizing or patronizing. It is better to say deaf people, people who are deaf, or people who are hard of hearing, or to use the term people with hearing difficulties/problems.

You should never use the term deaf-and-dumb to describe someone who is both deaf and unable to speak. Use deaf without speech or profoundly deaf instead.

deaf mute

The term deaf mute is now seen as offensive because of the underlying implication that people with the condition are unable to communicate in any way. You should use terms such as deaf without speech or profoundly deaf instead.

differently abled

This term was first suggested in the 1980s as an alternative to disabled, on the grounds that it conveys a more positive message. By describing someone as differently abled, you are suggesting that they have different abilities rather than abilities that are in some way impaired or reduced. But the term is still not widely used and some people have criticized it as being both over-euphemistic and condescending. The generally accepted term is still disabled.

disabled

This word came to be used as the standard term for referring to people with physical and mental disabilities from the 1960s onwards and it's still the most generally accepted term in both British and US English. It replaced terms which are now seen as unduly negative - such as handicapped - or as actively offensive, such as crippled or mentally defective.

The adjective disabled is often used with the definite article the to form a plural noun, as in this sentence:

We need to create awareness of the needs of the disabled.

Although this usage is widespread, many people feel that it is dehumanizing and patronizing. They believe that it lumps all disabled people together in an undifferentiated group whose members are defined only by their disability. To avoid inadvertently causing offence, it's preferable to refer to disabled people or people with disabilities instead.

Down's syndrome

This has replaced the former term mongolism which is now regarded as highly offensive. A person with Down's syndrome should be described exactly in those words: you should never use the term mongol.

People also refer to the condition as Down syndrome.

dumb

Describing someone who is unable to speak as dumb is almost certain to cause offence, since this original meaning has been so overwhelmed by the newer, informal meaning of ‘stupid’. You should use an alternative such as speech-impaired or having a speech disorder instead.

dwarf

The use of the word dwarf to refer to an unusually short person is generally considered to be offensive. However there are no generally acceptable alternatives. The term person of restricted growth is sometimes used, but it hasn't gained much currency. The word dwarfism is acceptable in medical contexts when referring to the condition of having unusually short stature. Midget is particularly offensive, and should be avoided.

 

handicapped

Until relatively recently, this was the standard British English term for describing someone with physical and mental disabilities. But it's now been replaced by more recent terms such as disabled or (if you're referring to mental disability) having learning difficulties and learning-disabled.

In American English, the term handicapped is still used in certain acceptable contexts, particularly when referring to facilities, etc., that are designed to accommodate disabled patrons (e.g., handicapped access, handicapped parking space, handicapped seating).

harelip

Using this word can cause offence. You should use the term cleft lip instead.

learning difficulties

The phrase learning difficulties covers a wide range of conditions that make it difficult for someone to learn at the rate expected of their age group. It has replaced outmoded terms such as mentally deficient, mentally defective, or mentally retarded, all of which are now likely to cause great offence. The new term is seen as less negative or discriminatory than its predecessors because it emphasizes the difficulty experienced by the person with, for example, Down's syndrome, rather than their innate ‘deficiencies’. Learning difficulties is the standard term in Britain in all official contexts: in American English, the standard usage is learning disability.

manic depression

The term manic depression is being increasingly superseded by the newer term bipolar disorder. People who have the condition can be described as having bipolar disorder, or simply as bipolar (rather than manic depressive).

mental

Terms such as mental hospital or mental patient were perfectly acceptable in the first half of the 20th century. Now, this use of the adjective mental is seen as old-fashioned and even offensive. The most usual acceptable alternative is psychiatric.

A few decades ago, the terms mental handicap or mentally handicapped were standard ways of describing mental disability. But they are now likely to cause offence and you should avoid using them. They've been replaced in all official contexts by the less negative term learning difficulties.

midget

The word midget is particularly offensive to people with dwarfism, as they consider it insulting and dehumanizing. Alternative terms are person of restricted growth or person of short stature.

mongol, mongolism

The term mongol was first used to refer to someone with Down's syndrome in the 19th century. It was adopted because some of the facial characteristics of people with Down's syndrome were supposed to resemble the normal facial features of people from East Asia. In modern English, using the term mongol (and also Mongol or Mongoloid) in this sense is deeply offensive: you should say ‘a person with Down's syndrome’ instead. Similarly, you should never use the word mongolism to refer to the condition itself: say Down's syndrome (or Down syndrome) instead.

mute

Describing someone who cannot speak as mute, or deaf mute, is now seen as offensive as it implies that they are completely unable to communicate with other people. If you are referring to a person who has not developed any spoken language skills, you should use the terms profoundly deaf or deaf without speech instead.

spastic

The word spastic has been used in medical senses since the 18th century: first to refer to spasms in the muscles and then to a form of muscular weakness typical of the condition cerebral palsy. In the 1970s and 1980s spastic became a term of abuse, used mainly by schoolchildren and used to insult anyone regarded as physically awkward or clumsy or generally incompetent. Nowadays, using the word as a noun or an adjective is likely to be seen as extremely offensive. You should use expressions such as person with cerebral palsy instead.

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