Appropriate Language

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This section provides information on how to avoid labelling language and inappropriate behaviour when communicating with students with a disability.

The preferred term 'people with disabilities' stresses the essential humanity of individuals and avoids objectification. The term 'disabled people' is still used, but this term defines people as 'disabled' first and 'people' second.

The following terms have fallen into disuse and should be avoided:

  • handicapped

  • retarded

  • special

  • able-bodied

  • physically challenged

  • differently-abled

  • victim or

  • sufferer.

5 Tips for Appropriate Language

  1. It is inappropriate to use the article 'the' with an adjective to describe people with disabilities (e.g. ‘the Stroke victim’)

  2. As a general rule, when referring to a person’s disability, describe the person first and the disability second (e.g. the student who has a Hearing Impairment)

  3. Avoid implying that people with disabilities are to be pitied, feared or ignored, or that they are somehow more heroic, courageous, patient, or 'special' than others.

  4. Never use the term 'normal' in contrast to a student without a disability, when describing a student with a disability.

  5. Avoid terms that define the disability as a limitation, such as 'confined to a wheelchair', or 'wheelchair-bound'. A person in a wheelchair 'uses a wheelchair'. For the user, a wheelchair is an aid to freedom, not a means of confinement

Appropriate and Inappropriate Terminology



person who is deaf

person who has a hearing impairment

person who is blind

person who has a vision impairment

wheelchair user

person who has polio

people with disabilities

person who has multiple sclerosis

the deaf

the hearing impaired

the blind

the vision impaired

wheelchair bound / person confined to a wheelchair

polio victim

the disabled

multiple sclerosis sufferer

Appropriate Behaviour

  • Acknowledging people as equal

  • Respecting people: assuming they are in control of their lives and can make their own decisions

  • Behave as you would normally: same lip movements, pitch and volume; a little slower for people with a hearing impairment

  • Allowing the same, not greater or less, personal space. Wheelchairs should be considered part of the person

  • Being perceptive, but not making assumptions or taking charge. Asking first "Is there any way I can help?"

  • Allowing enough time for communication

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