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Disability terminology – What is acceptable ?

Posted: 25 Jul, 2018. No comments
image showing the word disability together with two written definitions around disability terminology

Disabled Terminology - 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.

I first saw this article on Disability Horizons and having read it I knew it would be of interest to visitors to our website.

Emma Purcell is an accomplished writer and blogger. Emma kindly agreed to our sharing it with you. I hope you find it interesting and informative.

We blog because we love turning good conversations into great experiences.

Unacceptable words and phrases


Cripple is a term used to describes 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.

Personally, 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 lesser 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 selected the disabled logo emoj. 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

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 and 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 describes 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 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 examples, 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 from the Old French Latin form “inspiratio.”

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, in fact, 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

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

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 to 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. The majority of people use it, although some do 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 personally 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 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 on about my disability.

What are your thoughts on these disability-related words?

Overall, everyone has their own 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 of their skills, experiences, hobbies and personality first, and then, if required and permitted by the person, mention their disability or condition.

If you want to find out more about disability terminology, I highly recommend reading Disability Writing & Journalism Guidelines and Patriarchy in the UK: The Language of Disability

To view the original article, visit Disability Horizons

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