Misplaced Modifiers: Respectful Language Improves Accuracy

Print and broadcast media often describe people with disabilities with archaic and demeaning phrases. Patricia Digh provides guidelines for writing about people with disabilities. Internet publication URL: www.independentliving.org/docs4/digh.html

by Patricia Digh, 1999


Imagine how shocking it would be to pick up a newspaper today and read a front-page story about a "colored" or "Negro" politician or businessman. Yet, the print and broadcast media still describe people with disabilities with equally archaic and demeaning phrases such as "handicapped," "differently abled," "challenged" and "special."

Furthermore, while journalists do not include a person's ethnic or racial minority group status in articles unless it is a crime report or pertinent to the story, a disability inevitably gets mentioned regardless of the story's topic.

Here are some guidelines for writing about people with disabilities.

  • Use the people-first rule: "the woman who is blind" not "the blind woman."


  • Avoid "suffers from," "afflicted with" or "victim of," all of which cast disabilities as a negative and are, in fact, journalistically inaccurate. "Suffers from" indicates ongoing pain and torment, which is no more the case for most people with disabilities as it is for most people without disabilities. "Afflicted with" denotes a disease, which most disabilities are not. "Victim of" implies a crime is being committed on the person who has a disability.


  • Do not use "wheelchair-bound" or "confined to a wheelchair." People see their wheelchairs as convenient modes of transportation, not prisons, and the "bound/confined" phrase belies the fact that many people with motor disabilities engage in activities without their wheelchairs, including driving and sleeping. The proper phrase is "uses a wheelchair."


  • Use "disability" not "handicap." The word "handicap" derives from the phrase "cap in hand," referring to a beggar, and is despised by most people with disabilities. Other terms to avoid: "physically/mentally challenged" (who isn't?) "cripple" and "crippled."


  • Use "nondisabled" or "people without disabilities." The terms "normal" and "whole" are inappropriate and inaccurate.


  • Most disabilities are not a disease. Do not call a person with a disability a "patient" unless referring to a hospital setting. In an occupational and physical therapy context, "client" is preferred.


  • Some diseases, by legal definition, are considered disabilities. Victimization imagery ("AIDS victims") or defining the person by the disease ("she is a diabetic") is still inappropriate. Use "person with diabetes" or "people living with AIDS."


  • "Blind" refers to total loss of eyesight; "low vision" or "visual disability" is more accurate for people who have some degree of sight. Avoid "non-sighted."


  • People who consider themselves part of Deaf culture refer to themselves as "Deaf" with a capital "D." Because their culture derives from their language, they may be identified as you would other cultural entities, i.e. "Asian-Americans," "people with disabilities."


  • For people with speech disabilities, avoid "mute," "dumb," or "speech impediment."


  • Avoid "deformed," "deformity" and "birth defect." A person may be "born without arms" or "has a congenital disability," but is probably not defective.


  • Down syndrome is a chromosomal condition that causes developmental disability. Use "person with Down syndrome." Avoid "mongol" or "mongoloid."


  • Mental disabilities include cognitive, psychiatric and learning disabilities and physical head trauma. Avoid "mentally retarded," "insane," "slow learner," "learning disabled" and "brain damaged."


  • Cerebral palsy is a disability resulting from damage to the brain during birth that causes muscle incoordination. Avoid "palsied" and "spastic."


  • A seizure is an episode caused by a sudden disturbance in the brain. If seizures are recurrent, it is called a seizure disorder. Use "person with epilepsy" or "child with a seizure disorder." Avoid "epileptic," either as a noun or adjective.


  • Avoid "dwarf" or "midget." Some groups prefer "little people," but it's best to use "person of short stature."


  • Quadriplegia is a substantial loss of function in all four extremities. Paraplegia is a substantial loss of function in the lower part of the body. Use "man with paraplegia" or "she has quadriplegia." Avoid "paraplegic" or "quadriplegic" as either a noun or adjective.


  • Just as it is not always necessary to convey the color of a person's hair or skin, do not mention that a person has a disability unless the story is about disabilities.

Patricia Digh, president of RealWork Group, is a business analyst focusing on diversity, globalization and ethics in corporate and nonprofit settings.