Throughout history and the generations, disabled people have been referred to in a variety of ways. Even in society and the media today, there are still disagreements and misunderstandings as to which words and phrases are acceptable, and which most certainly aren’t.
Our writer, Emma Purcell, has done some research into the definitions, origins and acceptability of different disability terminology and how they make her, and other disabled people, feel today.
Unacceptable words and phrases
Cripple is a term used to describe people with physical disability or mobility issues. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it as; “a person who is unable to walk or move properly through disability or because of injury to their back or legs.”
It was first used as early as the year 950 AD and referred to a person unable to walk due to illness or disability. By the 20th century, cripple was deemed an offensive word.
Nowadays, it can be seen as acceptable if the disabled person self-identifies themselves as a cripple, or uses it for comedic value.
I would be offended if a non-disabled person or stranger called me a cripple, but I’m happy to use it in a humorous context among my peers.
Retard is a 15th-century word used for someone who has a mental delay and is slow at learning. It is today seen as an abusive term to describe people with learning disabilities and challenging behaviours.
It originated from the Latin verb ‘retardo’ meaning, ‘to delay’, which in turn was taken from the root word ‘tardus’, meaning ‘slow or late’.
This is one of those words that I strongly feel this is unacceptable. Every person has a unique way of thinking and learning, and no one should be made to feel less for that.
Handicapped is described in the OED as someone; “having a condition that markedly restricts their ability to function physically, mentally, or socially.”
The word was first recorded in the 20th century after a writer used the phrase: “the handicapped child.” It continued as a standard term in the British English language until the 1980s. In America, it is still used today when referring to disabled access and disabled car parking.
I only discovered this word when using the voiceover feature on my phone and selecting the disabled logo emoji. It referred to it as “the handicapped sign.”
I most definitely find this offensive. By definition, it defines disabled people as unable to carry out everyday tasks and as having limited access to education, employment, leisure and relationships. In some cases, we might not have access to these things, if societal barriers stand in our way. But we absolutely should.
Special needs is a term that is usually associated with health and social care professionals. It’s used in places such as schools, care homes, medical facilities clubs or societies to describe a group of disabled people.
The phrase came about as an attempt to be less negative, labelling disabled children’s educational needs, rather than their condition. In my opinion, special needs describe a group of people who are unwanted, not accepted and ridiculed.
In 2010, when I was 16, I went to a school for disabled people. Around that time it was awarded as being a specialist ‘special’ school. I felt that this was patronising and degrading to the students. Don’t get me wrong, the school was incredible and accommodated my needs perfectly. But I’d prefer us to not be labelled as a special school in any way. Instead, it should be known as a specialist in ‘accessible education’ or ‘enabling education’.
Inspiration is defined by the OED as; “the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative.” As example, this could mean a successful author inspiring a reader to become a writer or a famous musician inspiring a fan to become a performer. It originated from the Middle English phrase “divine guidance” and the Old French Latin form “inspiration.”
However, for many disabled people, the word inspirational is considered patronising, irritating and unacceptable.
Many non-disabled people think that it is inspiring when disabled people complete everyday tasks, such as getting out of bed, cooking and leaving the house. But we are we are just living our lives, like anyone else. Just because we use wheelchairs, mobility aids, canes, hearing aids and other adaptive equipment, it doesn’t mean we’re inspirational.
Acceptable words and phrases
Intellectual disability is another term for a learning disability. According to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, it is defined as; “a disability characterised by significant limitations both in intellectual functioning (reasoning, learning, problem-solving) and in adaptive behaviour, which covers a range of everyday social and practical skills.”
This phrase is becoming more widely used in the 21st century. In my opinion, it indicates that people with this kind of disability aren’t stupid, but simply require support to carry out certain tasks, such as reading, writing, counting and communicating.
Neurodiversity is a late 20th-century word defined as; “the variation and differences in neurological structure and function that exist among human beings, especially when viewed as being normal and natural rather than pathological.” It is usually associated with autism, but also with conditions such as dyspraxia, dyslexia and ADHD.
It means that rather than saying people with disabilities such as autism have brain damage and are diseased, they have neurological differences that should be respected in the same way as any other human variation.
Visually different describes a person with a face or body disfigurement, such as a bilateral cleft lip. It is a much more polite term than disfigured. It implies that their features aren’t damaged, but have a different shape, size or colour from other people’s.
I came across this term on a blog – CreativelyAble – and thought it was a great phrase to describe disabled people. The blogger, Larree Carnes, is from Los Angeles and has been blogging for several months. She became disabled after an illness in 2004.
She told me: “I came up with it because I have had to be creative in so many ways: in the way, I shop (for example, adding a makeshift cart to the back of my scooter); getting jobs done around the house (such as adding extenders to pick fruit from my tree or clean my windows); being a team mom for my son at sporting events (I had to bring snacks for the team and cut oranges etc, even though my disability is in my hands, and so much more.)
That’s why I say I am “creative” versus “dis” abled.”
Last but not least, the word disabled. Most people use it, although some try to avoid it.
The OED defines it as; “(of a person) having a physical or mental condition that limits their movements, senses, or activities.” For me, I don’t mind using it, as long as it is used in the right context.
I prefer the ‘people with disabilities’ approach. For example, I would say: “I’m Emma and I am disabled” or describe my conditions with; “I’m Emma and I have cerebral palsy and am registered blind.” I think it’s important that the name goes first – it’s about the person with a disability, not the disability.
If I’m in a situation where my disability has no relevance, for example in a job application or news report, I would just say; “My name is Emma and I’m a graduate student looking for a position in the media industry.” I only disclose my disability if it’s a disabled-related story, a disabled-related media platform or if questioned about my disability.
What are your thoughts on these disability-related words?
Overall, everyone has their preferences on how they name or describe their disability. But I would say that when communicating with disabled people, it is important to take an interest in their skills, experiences, hobbies and personality first, and then, if required and permitted by the person, mention their disability or condition.
You can read more about Emma by visiting her blog, Rock For Disability.
Updated February 2024
Identity-First vs Person-First Language
Person-first language (e.g. “person with a disability”) aims to emphasize the humanity and individuality of disabled people rather than defining them by their disability. It originated from advocacy movements in the 1970s. However, some disabled advocates argue that person-first language implies disability itself is negative and should be separated from someone’s identity. This has led to the more recent emergence of identity-first language (e.g. “disabled person”), which recognizes disability as an integral experience shaping one’s identity and perception of the world. There are reasoned arguments on both sides:
Benefits of person-first language:
- Emphasizes the person over the disability
- Avoids reducing someone solely to their disability
- Can help challenge assumptions that disability inherently diminishes humanity/dignity
Drawbacks of person-first language:
- Suggests disability is negative if it needs to be distanced from the person
- Does not reflect those who consider disability central to identity
- Can still “other” disabled people as distinct from broader society
Benefits of identity-first language:
- Affirms disability as a natural and valid experience
- Respects those who view disability as core to identity
- Focuses on social barriers vs. inherent limitations of disabled people
Drawbacks of identity-first language:
- Some still perceive it as insensitive or too limiting
- Risks overemphasizing disability as someone’s defining trait
Additionally, different disability communities have different preferences. Many in the Deaf and autism communities prefer identity-first language, while conditions like diabetes or epilepsy remain better suited to person-first language.When possible, ask individuals their preference. Using both types of language where appropriate demonstrates inclusion and respect for the diversity of perspectives within the disability community.
Using Respectful Language
When discussing disability issues, it is important to use language that is sensitive and does not perpetuate negative stereotypes. Terms like “crippled,” while once commonly used, are now considered disrespectful and offensive by many in the disability community. Instead of using such problematic language, here are some respectful alternatives:
- Disabled Person” /”Person with a mobility disability” or “wheelchair user” “person who uses a wheelchair” as another word for “crippled
- “Accessible” instead of “disabled” parking spaces or bathrooms
- “Person with a disability” rather than “disabled person” to emphasize the person first
- Avoid language implying pity like “victim of,” “suffers from,” or “confined to a wheelchair”
The disability community itself is diverse, so preferences on terminology vary. When possible, ask individuals how they prefer to be identified. Using inclusive language demonstrates respect and supports the dignity of people with disabilities.The key is focusing on the person rather than the disability. Terms should be descriptive, not emotional or judgmental. With thoughtful language choices, we can work to eliminate prejudice and ensure people with disabilities are valued equally.
Further reading From Government and Disability Groups about Inclusive Language
Here are some additional authoritative resources on disability language and terminology:
UK Government Guidance:
- Office for Disability Issues Style Guide – Provides practical tips on inclusive language from UK government agencies.
- Scope’s Disability Language Guide – Leading UK disability charity’s recommendations for terminology.
US Government Guidance:
- CDC’s Disability and Health Promotion Guidelines – Centers for Disease Control suggestions for writing about disability.
- ADA National Network Glossary – Definitions of disability-related terms from the ADA National Network.
Disability Activist Groups:
- The Body is Not An Apology – Radical self-love community’s writer guidelines with disability language tips.
- National Center on Disability Journalism – Disability language style guide from NCDJ at Arizona State University.
- Rooted in Rights – Guidance on writing about disability from leading advocacy non-profit.