How to Write About Disability

Two Parts:Choosing Appropriate LanguageAvoiding Common Pitfalls

As a journalist, essayist, novelist, or English student who wants to write about disability, navigating the terminology can be confusing if you are non-disabled or new to the disability community. There is useful language to avoid hurtful, confusing and offensive terms. Here is how to avoid hurtful stereotypes and choose sensitive, up-to-date, more appropriate language.

Part 1
Choosing Appropriate Language

  1. Image titled Add relevant.png
    Refrain from referring to a person's disability unless it is relevant. Many female writers would use pen names or their initials to avoid being judged on the basis of their gender. [1][2]. The same goes for a disability. Avoid talking about someone's disability unless it is directly relevant to what you are discussing.[3]
    • For example, it would be appropriate to ask questions about ADHD when interviewing a writer whose memoir focuses on her ADHD. When interviewing an author who just happens to have ADHD, it would be inappropriate, because she never put it on the table for discussion. Follow their lead regarding whether it is open for discussion.
  2. Image titled Disability Euphemisms.png
    Avoid using cutesy or trendy terms for disability. "Differently abled,"[4] "diffability," and "handicapable" are all euphemisms for a term which some disabled people argue shouldn't need to be avoided in the first place.[5][6][7] Keep a factual tone and say "disabled" or "has a disability."
    • Many people with disabilities do not appreciate political correctness. It comes across as silly, impersonal, and subjective.
    • Most people with disabilities don't like the word "challenged" in regards to disability, such as "physically challenged."[8] This is because disabled people are often pressured to overcome their disabilities, even if it's exhausting, painful, or impossible.
    • "Special needs" is disliked by many people with disabilities, as it suggests that their needs are extra or non-essential.[9][10]
  3. Image titled Person First and Identity First Language.png
    Respect individual or community preferences regarding people-first or identity-first language.[11] People-first language places the word person first, e.g. "person with Down Syndrome."[12] Identity-first language uses the disability as an ordinary adjective, e.g. "blind person."[13] When writing about an individual, use the language that they prefer, and when writing about a community, use the community's preferred language.
    • Ask an individual which language they prefer. It is usually (but not always) the same as the general community preference.
    • The Deaf, Blind, and Autistic communities prefer identity-first language, such as "Deaf person" over "person with deafness"[14][15]
    • The Bleeding and Blood Disorder community,[16] and the Intellectual and Developmental Disability (IDD) community (excluding autism),[17] prefers person-first language, such as "person with Hemophilia" instead of "Hemophiliac."
    • For a community with no clear preference, try using a mix throughout your piece (e.g. both "disabled people" and "people with disabilities").
  4. Image titled Disability Doesn't Overshadow doodle.png
    Use disability as an adjective or an add-on, not a noun. Say "people with epilepsy" instead of "epileptics," "blind people" instead of "the blind," and "people with disabilities" or "disabled people" instead of "the disabled." Remember that people have disabilities. They are not the disability.
    • Some people in the Autistic community are fine with being referred to as "Autistics," just as one might refer to "artists" or "blondes." This is an exception to the rule.[18][19] Since autism is a spectrum disorder, to say that a person with autism is "on the spectrum" is also acceptable.
  5. Image titled Deaf vs deaf.png
    Capitalize the name of a disability to show belonging to a community.[20] A deaf person is simply mostly or completely unable to hear, while a Deaf person accepts their disability as part of their identity and is part of the Deaf culture/community.[21] Capitalize the disability to show that someone belongs to a culture (e.g. "Tyrell is Blind") or to refer to a community (e.g., "Rainbows are a common motif in Autistic culture").
    • Disabilities that involve the last name of the person who discover them are usually capitalized (e.g. Down Syndrome).
  6. Image titled Man Talking Trash doodle.png
    Don't use slurs or outdated terms. Some language has been turned into an insult or is used in dehumanizing ways. These words have adopted derogatory connotations and are best not to use.[22][23][24] Instead, name the disability (e.g. "uses a wheelchair" or "has Tourette syndrome").
    • Midget/dwarf[25] (some are okay with "dwarf," but generally "little person" is best)[26]
    • Invalid, lame[27]
    • Cripple(d)[28]
    • Defect, deformity, affliction
    • Mongoloid
    • Crazy, insane, maniac
    • Spaz
    • Handicapped[29]
    • Retard(ed)
    • Idiot, moron, dumb, or any term that is considered an insult in popular culture
  7. Image titled Autistic People Protest Assignment of Functioning Labels doodle.png
    Don't try to "grade" disabled people or make assumptions about their skill levels. A non-verbal woman who waves her arms about may be a self-sufficient, talented writer. An articulate man who "passes" for non-disabled may have serious trouble caring for himself and holding down a job.[30]. Avoid judging people on how they look or labeling them as either full of unrestricted potential or severely disabled for life. All people with disabilities have both strengths and needs, and neither aspect should be overlooked.
    • Don't assume that someone has an intellectual disability based on facial expression, motor skills, disability accent, or other disability symptoms.
    • People with disabilities, notably in Autistic culture, have rejected restrictive labels like "high-functioning" and "low-functioning."[31][32]
    • Describe individual needs. For example, instead of "Hikaru is low-functioning," say "Hikaru is nonverbal and gets assistance with cooking, cleaning, and self care."
  8. Image titled Happy Disabled People doodle.png
    Avoid melodramatic language of pain, suffering, or doom. Most people with disabilities are ordinary people; they get up every morning, eat cereal, travel to school or work, and pass through an ordinary day. Their disabilities do not make their life unlivable. Stick to factual language, such as "Ahmed has an anxiety disorder." Avoid terms such as...
    • "Suffers from"[33]
    • "Struggles with/is fighting"[34][35] (unless the person says so themselves)
    • "Confined/Bound to a wheelchair" (is also inaccurate; some wheelchair users can stand or walk short distances)
    • "Victim of"[36]
    • "Will never"
    • "Stricken by"
    • "Patient" (unless they actually are receiving treatment in a medical facility)
  9. Image titled Last Name Consistency for Disability.png
    Be consistent with names. If you refer to non-disabled people by last name, then refer to a disabled person by last name.[37] If you refer to everyone by first name, then do the same for people with disabilities. This shows that you respect them as much as you do other people.
    • For example, if you refer to Angela Ramirez as "Ramirez" and Ryan Black as "Black," then you would refer to Jimmy McCoy as "McCoy," not "Jimmy" or "Jim."
    • If you refer to Angela Ramirez as "Angela" and Ryan Black as "Ryan," then "Jimmy" or "Jim" would be appropriate.
  10. Image titled Handicap vs accesible.png
    Use "Accessible" over "Handicap" to describe accessibility accommodations. It is acceptable by most communities to use both, but "Accessible" is preferred.[38] New York in particular has replaced its universal handicap symbol with a redesigned "mobile" accessibility image. [39]
  11. Image titled Are Disabled People Normal.png
    Use factual language for non-disabled people. "Non-disabled people" or "people without disabilities" is an easy way to describe people who don't have disabilities. Avoid referring to such people as "normal," as this suggests that disabled people are abnormal.[40]

Part 2
Avoiding Common Pitfalls

  1. Image titled Disability Prophets of Doom.png
    Watch your sources. A common quip in the disability community is "Nothing about us without us is for us," and non-disabled people should not be the sole authorities on disabled people. Ask real people with disabilities for their thoughts and opinions, and whenever possible, ask a person how they prefer to be addressed.
    • A good organization has many people with disabilities at all levels of membership, and elevates instead of suppresses their voices.
  2. Image titled Inspiration Porn.png
    Look out for inspiration porn. A distorted form of pity, inspiration porn glorifies a disabled person for being able to do everyday things (e.g., "It's so incredible that she can walk around on the prosthetic legs she's been using for 15 years"). The purpose is to inspire people without disabilities, or to belittle their "excuses" for not doing something a disabled person can achieve.
    • Living with a disability isn't automatically courageous, special, or superhuman.
    • This implies that it is unusual for people with disabilities to have talents or skills, or that their abilities are inherently lesser (the assumption being that if a disabled person can do it, anyone can).
  3. Image titled Disability Cure.png
    Do not assume that disability can be overcome. Disabilities are often lifelong, and a disabled person will experience challenges throughout their lives. Individual problems can be overcome, but disability is usually for life.
    • People cannot "recover" from lifelong disabilities; however, they can adapt and gain new skills. It is possible to be successful and disabled at the same time.
  4. Image titled Disabled Woman Runs Out of Spoons doodle.png
    Recognize that disability can vary from day to day. Just like non-disabled people, disabled people have good days and bad days. Someone who uses a wheelchair one day might use a cane the next, and crutches after that. This does not mean they are faking it or "getting better," just that this particular day happens to be easier.
    • Exhaustion, seizures, stress, lack of sleep, how hard they pushed themselves yesterday, recent flare-ups (e.g. a person with a blood disorder having a minor bleed), and many other things can play a role in how their disability manifests itself.
    • People may or may not look different when they are having a hard day. Don't assume that they're feeling okay because they look fine, or that their disability equipment (e.g. crutches) is just for show.
    • The spoon theory describes how many people with disabilities, from chronic pain to depression, need to budget their energy.[41]
  5. Image titled Disabled Muslim Woman Building Robot doodle.png
    Don't portray disabled people as burdensome or undesirable. People with disabilities can be good friends, sons, daughters, lovers, siblings, and spouses. Many are capable of working. All are worthwhile human beings.
    • Befriending or falling in love with a disabled person isn't an act of charity. The person with a disability has something to contribute to the relationship.
    • If a disabled child is murdered, treat it the same way you'd treat the murder of a non-disabled child. Don't focus on how "difficult" it was to live with the victim, or portray it as a mercy killing or understandable crime.[42][43][44][45][46][47]
  6. Image titled Disabled Man Reading wikiHow doodle.png
    Remember that you have disabled readers. One of the biggest ways to combat ableism is to use empathy. When you write about a given disability, imagine a person with that disability reading your piece. How would they feel about themselves? Would they feel respected or demeaned? Write in a way that shows disabled people that they are respected, they are valued, and they are not alone.
    • When in doubt, look it up! There are plenty of writers with disabilities online who share their experiences.


  • When in doubt, ask disabled people for advice. Ask more than one person, because different people may have different opinions. Err on the side of kindness and sensitivity.
  • Whenever possible, ask a person how they prefer to be addressed. Individual preferences are also important.
  • Generally, a person lives with [their disability], not has [disability].

Sources and Citations

Show more... (45)

Article Info

Featured Article

Categories: Featured Articles | Disability Issues | Writing