Creating an Inclusion-Friendly World

Disability-Inclusive Language

There is great work to be done to become a fully inclusive society. The first step to achieving inclusion is empowering individuals to overcome barriers, and understanding how language can be used to integrate and not segregate people who have differences will help build a society where everyone can participate and achieve.

The United Nations Disability Inclusion Strategy is the key framework for policy and action to promote disability inclusion around the world. Members of the United Nations are working diligently to ensure children who experience disabilities are supported and included in mainstream society. The language we use to describe persons who have disabilities shapes our perception of the world. To support the work of disability advocates, it is important to understand inclusive language. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities sets the standard for inclusive language.

Disability-Inclusive Language was introduced by the United Nations Office in Geneva, Switzerland in 2019. Understanding the link between language and how it affects people has evolved over the years. Hence, terminology used in the past may not be acceptable today. The inappropriate language used when referring to people who have disabilities can lead to them feeling excluded and isolated. It can also become a barrier to meaningful participation. When disability-inclusive language is used, it’s a celebration of diversity, of strengthening human rights, and creating a more inclusive society.

Rewiring Society to Use Person-First Language

Ableism is a discriminatory term used to describe able-bodied people. This level of discrimination defines people by their disabilities and promotes the inaccurate belief that people who have disabilities are inferior to people who do not have disabilities. To combat ableism, it is important to consider the impact our language has on our perceptions and acceptance of people who have disabilities.

Person-first language helps to destigmatize the impact of disability. Referring to someone as “a person with a disability” emphasizes the “person” and de-emphasizes the disability. A person without a disability is no more “normal” than a person who has a disability. A person with a disability does not “suffer” and they are not “afflicted by” their medical condition. Terms that are outdated only add to the barriers faced every day by people with disabilities. A person with an intellectual disability is not “slow” or “feeble-minded.” It is demoralizing to describe a person with a psychosocial disability as insane, crazy, or demented. People who are deaf or hard of hearing do not believe they are “hearing impaired” and should never be described as “deaf and dumb.” Many other commonly used terms from decades past are outdated and are not “disability-inclusive language.”

Terms such as:

  • “The blind”
  • Crippled, invalid, or handicapped
  • “Confined” to a wheelchair or wheelchair-bound
  • Midget or dwarf
  • Mongoloid
  • Albino
  • Non-verbal person or mute

Many of these outdated terms are wince-inducing to us today. The general principles of the United Nations Inclusion Strategy include the use of “people-first language” in both oral and written speech. This strategy suggests that people should avoid labels, stereotypes, and condescending euphemisms. Disability is not an illness or a problem. It’s simply a state of being.

Disability-inclusive language promotes access and ensures that people who have disabilities are provided the accessibility to fully participate in society. People who have disabilities achieve access when they are given the opportunity to participate. Accessibility is achieved when the design of products, devices, services, or environments is used by persons with or without disabilities. Other uses of the term “accessible” include accessible parking vs. handicapped parking and accessible bathrooms vs. handicapped bathrooms.

Impairment, Disability, Handicap - How are they different?

Impairment refers to “any loss or abnormality of a psychological, physiological, or anatomical structure or function.” A disability is the result of a medical condition that limits a person's movements, senses, or activities. A handicap is a barrier or circumstance that interferes with progress or success. Disability results from the interaction between people who have limitations and the barriers hindering full participation. Many people who have disabilities do not want to be considered “impaired” or “handicapped,” as the terms focus on their inabilities rather than their abilities.

The following table is a representation of the guidelines prepared by the United Nations Office:




Don’t use

Emphasize abilities, not limitations

Person who uses a wheelchair

Confined or restricted to a wheelchair, wheelchair-bound

Person who uses a device to speak

Can’t talk, mute

Do not use language that suggests the lack of something

Person with a disability

Disabled, handicapped

Person of short stature


Person with cerebral palsy

Cerebral palsy victim

Person with epilepsy or seizure disorder


Person with multiple sclerosis

Afflicted by multiple sclerosis

Emphasize the need for accessibility, not the disability

Accessible parking or bathroom

Handicapped parking or bathroom

Do not use offensive language

Person with a physical disability

Crippled, lame, deformed, invalid, spastic

Person with an intellectual, cognitive, developmental disability

Slow, simple, moronic, defective, afflicted, special person

Person with an emotional or behavioral disability, a mental health impairment, or a psychiatric disability

Insane, crazy, psycho, maniac, nuts

Avoid language that implies negative stereotypes

Person without a disability

Normal person, healthy person

Do not portray people with disabilities as inspirational only because of their disability

Person who is successful, productive

Has overcome his/her disability, is courageous

(Terminology prepared by the United Nations Office at Geneva as part of efforts to implement the United Nations Disability Inclusion Strategy)

Author's Biography

Kevin Anderson has been an occupational therapist for 36 years, with experience in adult rehabilitation, school-based practice, and home-based therapy. He is currently a faculty member of the occupational therapy department at the University of Mary and program coordinator of the Fargo campus and is certified as an assistive technology professional. He maintains a private practice, where he works with individuals who have multiple disabilities. He holds a PhD in Education, where he studied the impact of activity at TNT Kids Fitness on individuals who have multiple disabilities. His research agenda has involved the study of physical activity, employment, assistive technology, and sensory interventions. He has provided consultation to schools, homes, and facilities in the community that serve individuals with disabilities for many years, with a special interest in creating sensory environments.

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