When writing about anyone with a disability—whether physical, intellectual or psychological/emotional—always strive to adopt "people first" language. This means using words that put the person at the center of a description rather than a label, their status, or focusing on what the individual cannot do.

For example, you would refer to a "graduate student who has epilepsy" but not a "graduate student who's an epileptic." As with any other area of sensitivity like this, please ask the individual how they prefer to be referred to and use this language as much as possible. Be sure if you are interviewing someone with a disability, whether visible or not, that they are aware of how much detail and information you will be sharing about their disability and/or ask them to review the content before it is published.

If the disability is not part of the story and there isn't a need to include it, don't.

Don't refer to someone who does not have a disability as "able-bodied." You can simply say they do not have a disability (or, if necessary, use "non-disabled") when it's necessary to distinguish that someone doesn't have a disability. Avoid using the term "normal."

Avoid sensationalizing a disability by using phrases like, but not limited to, "afflicted with," "suffers from," or "victim of."

Use "accessible" when describing a space, location or event that is modified to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

People with disabilities are typically not suffering from a disease or illness, therefore they should not be referred to as "patients," unless under a healthcare setting.

To show inclusiveness and sensitivity to students, you may want to refer to them as "students who are receiving services," which may include physical or mental help, or "students with a verified disability." 

People with Disabilities: Terms to Avoid 

  • Able-bodied or normal when referring to a person who does not have a disability
  • Afflicted with
  • Confined to a wheelchair: Describes a person only in relationship to a piece of equipment designed to liberate rather than confine.
  • Crazy, insane, nuts, psycho
  • Deaf and dumb/deaf-mute
  • Defect, birth defect, defective
  • Demented, senile
  • Disabled (preferred: people with disabilities or disabled people)
  • Epileptic fit: The term seizure is preferred when referring to the brief manifestation of symptoms common among those with epilepsy.
  • Loony, loony bin, lunatic
  • Mentally retarded: Always try to specify the type of disability being referenced. Otherwise, the terms mental disability, intellectual disability and developmental disability are acceptable.
  • Midget
  • Paraplegic: Avoid referring to an individual as a paraplegic. Instead, say the person has paraplegia.
  • Psychotic: Avoid using psychotic to describe a person; instead refer to a person as having a psychotic condition or psychosis.
  • Quadriplegic: Use people-first language, such as "a person with quadriplegia"
  • Schizophrenic: Use people-first language, stating that someone is "a person with schizophrenia" or "a person diagnosed with schizophrenia" rather than a schizophrenic or a schizophrenic person
  • Spastic, a spaz
  • Stricken with, suffers from, victim of
  • Vegetable
  • Wheelchair-bound (preferred: person who uses a wheelchair, wheelchair user)

    Source: National Center on Disability and Journalism