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The Power of Words

By: Sr. Helen Kline, SSJ, Director, Office of Persons with Disabilities, Diocese of Trenton, NJ. Used with permission.

Words, whether spoken or signed, are the basic means by which people communicate. Words are a powerful tool which can affirm and empower. At the same time, the misuse of words can belittle and demean. Language used to describe people with disabilities often focuses on lack of ability rather than competency. Age-old terms such as "deaf and dumb", "invalid", or "idiot" continue to be used despite their disrespectful tone and the inaccurate message they portray.

When writing or speaking about people with disabilities, words should be chosen with care in order to promote dignity and a positive image. The following suggestions, adapted from guidelines developed by Paraquad, Inc. And The Research and Training Center on Independent Living, may assist in this process.

Make reference to the person first, then the disability. Say "a person with a disability", rather than "a disabled person." However, the later is acceptable in the interest of conserving print space or saving announcing time.

  • If the disability isn’t germane to the story or conversation, don’t mention it.
  • A person is not a condition, therefore, avoid describing a person in such a manner. Don’t present someone as an "epileptic". Rather, say "a person with epilepsy."
  • Do not portray successful people with disabilities as superhuman, as this raises false expectations that all disabled people should reach this level.
  • Do not sensationalize a disability by use of such terms as afflicted with, victim or, suffer from.
  • Do not use generic labels for disability groups such as "the retarded."

The following terms should be avoided because they have negative connotations and evoke pity:

Abnormal, Burden, Deformed, Disformed, Imbecile, Incapacitated, Maimed, Moron, Palsied, Pathetic, Pitiful, Poor, Spastic, Stricken with, Suffer, Tragedy, Unfortunate

Words with Dignity Words to Avoid
Person with a disability, disabled Crippled, handicapped, invalid (literally, invalid means "not valid")
Person who has ..., person who experienced..., person with... Victim, afflicted by or with...,
Non-disabled Normal (referring to non-disabled people as "Normal" insinuates that people with disabilities are abnormal
Uses a wheelchair Restricted, confined to a wheelchair, wheelchair bound (the chair enables mobility), wheelchair person
Deaf, nonverbal Deaf mute, deaf and dumb, dummy
Disabled since birth, born with ... Birth defect
Emotional disorder, mental illness Crazy, insane, mental case, psycho
Seizures Fits
Developmental delay Slow
Has a physical disability or spinal curvature Deformed, misshapen, hunchback
Has multiple or severe disabilities Vegetable, creature, freak
Person with mental retardation Retard, idiot

By: Sr. Helen Kline, SSJ, Director, Office of Persons with Disabilities, Diocese of Trenton, NJ.