Accessibility Language Reference Guide

Three Rivers Center for Independent LivingWhat we say influences how we act, think, and feel. By putting people first, rather than their disability, we can begin to remove the attitudinal barriers faced by people with disabilities.

Person First

It is important to identify the person first, rather than the disability, by saying a person with a disability or a person who is deaf rather than disabled person or deaf person.


The terms: afflicted with, suffering from, cripple and victim are all considered unacceptable because they emotionalize and sensationalize disability in a way that induces pity. The term handicapped is based on the image of a person with a disability on the street with a cap in their hand, begging for money, which implies that this is all that they are capable of. Except when citing laws, regulations, or environmental conditions such as stairs, (ex: the stairs are a handicap to her) use disability instead.

Wheelchair Use

People are not confined to their wheelchairs; they use them for mobility. Say he or she uses a wheelchair, NOT wheelchair bound or confined to a wheelchair.


Refers to total loss of vision. Partial vision may be referred to as partial sight or visual impairment.


Refers to total loss of hearing. A person with partial hearing may be referred to as hard of hearing, or as having a hearing impairment.


Person who cannot speak is the preferred term for describing individuals who are non-verbal. Terms such as deaf-mute and deaf-dumb are degrading terms. They also imply that if someone is deaf they must also be stupid. The inability to speak does not indicate intelligence.

Congenital Disability

This is a disability that has existed since birth. Do NOT use the term birth defect. Defect is derogatory and is not a synonym for disability.

Learning Disability

Refers to a condition affecting the understanding or use of spoken and/ or written language.

Mental Health Disability

Describes any of the recognized forms of psychiatric conditions, mental illness, or emotional disorders. Terms such as neurotic, psychotic, and schizophrenic are libelous labels.

Developmental Disability

Describes mental or physical impairment, that occurs prior to the age of 22, resulting in substantial functional limitations. DO NOT use labels such as retard, moron, and mentally defective or deficient.

Speech Impairment

Describes the condition of having limited or difficult speech patterns.

Media Portrayals

Often news stories contain phrases such as "overcome her disability" or "in spite of his handicap". These terms inaccurately reflect the barriers people with disabilities face. They do not succeed in spite of their disabilities in as much as they succeed in spite of an inaccessible and discriminatory society. They do not overcome their disabilities so much as they overcome prejudice.

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One Response to “Accessibility Language Reference Guide”

  1. Catherine Says:

    This was very helpful for me as i try to negotiate the terrain of disabilities activism. Are there guidelines for public institutions that would like to more accessible? i am composing language for a brochure of public programs and would like to include information letting people know that our spaces are wheelchair accessible and that they can call for a sign interpeter or to make other accomodations. What is the best language to use? Thank you.

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