What is the proper way to speak to or about someone who has a disability? Consider how you would introduce someone --Jane Doe-- who doesn’t have a disability.  You would give her name, where she lives, what she does or what she is interested in; she likes swimming, or eating Mexican food, or watching science fiction movies.  Why say it differently for a person with a disability? Every person is made up of many characteristics--mental as well as physical--and few want to be identified only by their ability to play tennis or by their love of fried onions or by physical traits.  Those are just parts of us.  In speaking or writing, remember that children or adults with disabilities are like everyone else, except they happen to have a disability.  Therefore, here are a few tips for improving your language related to disabilities.
  • Speak of the person first, then the disability, i.e. a student with a learning disability.
  • Emphasize abilities, not limitations.
  • Do not label people “the disabled”, instead using the term “people with disabilities”
  • Don’t give excessive praise or attention to a person with a disability and do not patronize them.
  • Choice and independence are important; let the person do or speak for him/herself as much as possible.  Address the person according to how they prefer to be addressed.
  • A disability is a functional limitation that interferes with a person’s ability to walk, hear, talk, learn, etc.  The word “handicap” is used to describe a situation or barrier imposed by society, the environment or oneself.

“Why Say It Differently...”


Instead of...

Child with a disability

disabled or handicapped child

Person with cerebral palsy

Palsied, or C.P., or spastic

Without speech, nonverbal

Mute or dumb

Developmental delay


Emotional disorder or mental illness

Crazy or insane

Deaf or hearing impaired and Communicates with sign

Deaf and dumb

Uses a wheelchair

confined to a wheelchair

Person with retardation


Person with epilepsy


With Downs Syndrome


Has a learning disability

Is learning disabled


Normal, healthy

Has a physical disability


Congenital disability

Birth defect


Disease (unless it’s a disease)



Cleft lip

Hare lip

Mobility impaired


Medically involved or has Chronic illness



Invalid or paralytic

Has quadriplegia (paralysis of both Arms and legs)


Has paraplegia (loss of function in the lower body only)


Of short stature

Dwarf or midget

What else can you do? If you see or hear others use incorrect terminology, regardless of the reason, remind them of the proper terms so they can be aware of the appropriate words to use. Tell them it matters to you and to people with disabilities.

For more information regarding accommodating students with disabilities, please contact the DSPS Office at 707-253-3080 or by visiting the office on campus in Building 1300, Room 1339E.  All DSPS staff and faculty are available via telephone and electronic mail and contact information is available upon request