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  • Writer's pictureMeg O'Connell


A side by side image of a woman on the left with her arms raised looking confused. A man on the right also looks confused..
Are you using the wrong language?

Words matter.

Think they don’t?

Just consider the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by major corporations to name new products and create ad campaigns for a new car, computer, cruise ship, makeup line, clothing, and even toothpaste to generate excitement and enthusiasm for the latest product.

Why? Because the right words matter. This is not only true for big companies, but it is true in all aspects of our lives, what you say matters, and how you say it matters.

Disability is an area fraught with words that can diminish or demean. And well-intentioned people often create variances to try to uplift by using terms like "special needs", or "differently abled", or "handi-capable". But these words do the opposite, they imply there is something wrong with having a disability or that disability is a dirty word.

It also happens in our workplaces. People are uncertain of how to talk about disabilities at work, no one wants to be offensive, but it doesn’t take much effort to get it right.

Here are three basic tips on disability language.

Don’t Use Words That Pity.

Avoid terms that imply pity or tragedy – such as afflicted, confined, suffering, stricken or victim. These terms can evoke negative emotions and imply that people with disabilities are helpless, passive, or dependent. Instead, use neutral or positive terms that convey agency, ability, and resilience, such as “living with” or experiencing or thriving. And, keep in mind many times, disability doesn’t need to be mentioned at all. Typically, a person’s disability is the least interesting thing about them.


Avoid Outdated Terms

Language evolves over time. So, avoid outdated, offensive, or derogatory language such as crippled, handicapped, invalid, impaired, or low functioning. These terms focus on the disability and not the person. They can dehumanize, marginalize, or insult people with disabilities, and they often have historical or social connotations that are harmful or oppressive. Instead, use terms that are current, respectful, and descriptive. It is ok to say disabled or say a person with Autism or wheelchair user, or someone who is hard of hearing.

Avoid Generalizations.

Avoid generalizations or assumptions that lump all people with disabilities into one category such as “the disabled”, “the blind”, or “the deaf”. These terms can erase the complexity of people with disabilities. Instead use terms that describe people as individuals and their attributes, skills, and capabilities.

By following these basic principles, we can use disability language that is respectful, inclusive, and empowering.  This can help create a more accessible, equitable, and diverse workplace, where people with disabilities are valued, respected, and represented.  Disability language matters and we can all make a difference by choosing our words consciously and carefully.

Change is possible.



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