Outdated Words/Phrases

Language changes over time. Words and phrases come into fashion, and we attach our own meanings to them. A classic example from the disability community is the word, “retarded” (also known as “the r-word”). Last century, “mentally retarded” was a diagnostic term. Doctors, psychologists, educators, and law makers used this term to describe people with an intellectual disability (generally with an IQ of less than 70). Influenced by ableism, “retarded” has increasingly been used as an insult (see “The Effects of the R-Word“). After massive push back from the disability community, the r-word was finally retired in 2010 with the signing of Rosa’s Law.

While providing a complete list of the words and phrases is beyond the scope of this project, this page includes some of the more common examples. In addition to this site, the Disability Language Style Guide from the National Center on Disability and Journalism and the style guide for the American Psychiatric Association are useful. Lydia X. Z. Brown also maintains an extensive list on their blog, Autistic Hoya.

NOTE: It is important to ask people with disabilities about their preferences when it comes to language. For example, some people prefer person-first language (person with Down syndrome) while others prefer identity-first language (Autistic).


Say ThisNot This
Person with a disability
Has a disability
Is disabled
Suffers from
Afflicted by
Victim of
See also, euphemisms
Is able to…
Is unable to…
Needs support to…
High functioning
Low functioning
See also, functioning labels

Physical Disabilities

Say ThisNot This
Uses a wheelchair
Uses a mobility device (cane, walker, etc.)
Confined to a wheelchair
Person with a physical disability
Physically disabled
Person with [specific diagnosis]
Cripple / crippled by…

Intellectual & Neurological Disabilities

Say ThisNot This
Person with an intellectual/cognitive disability
Intellectually/cognitively disabled person
Person with a learning disability
Learning disabled person
Person with [specific diagnosis]
Mentally challenged
Mentally handicapped
Mentally retarded
Person with autism

Mental Health

Say ThisNot This
Person with a mental health diagnosis/disability
Person with a psychiatric diagnosis/disability
Person with [specific diagnosis]

Sensory Disabilities

Say ThisNot This
Deaf person
Deaf-Blind person
Person who is hard of hearing
Hearing impaired person
Person who is hearing impaired
Person with hearing loss
Person with deafness (and blindness)
Blind person
Person who is blind
Person with limited/low vision
Visually impaired
Visually challenged
Sight challenged
Person with blindness

People without Disabilities

Say ThisNot This
Person without a disability

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