People with Disabilities

Using language that reflects dignity and respect for addressing someone with a disability is important. It is best to address them by their names. When writing about anyone with a disability — whether physical, intellectual or psychological/emotional — always strive to adopt people-first language or identity-first language. The use of people-first language, the individual is placed in front of their disability (“student with a learning disability”), and identity-first language, the disability precedes the person (“autistic person”), are topics of discussion spanning professional communities, personal conversations and social media. Whenever possible, ask the individual what they prefer. Read more in this article debating the use of people-first and indentity-first language.

To honor preferences, consider using a mix of terminology in your verbal and written communication unless you know the preferences of an individual or group. This would include intermixing the use of person-first and identity-first language both within a sentence and across sentences.

Often, there is no need to refer to a person’s disability, but when the need arises, choose acceptable terminology for the specific disability, or use the term preferred by the individual. Whenever possible, ask the preferred terminology. One person with a visual disability may prefer “blind,” while another person with a similar disability may prefer “person with low or limited loss of vision.” Avoid using disability and mental/emotional health terminology to describe a situation metaphorically, especially if the phrasing is meant as an insult or is used flippantly.

The language surrounding disabilities has changed over time. Although some words and phrases have been commonly used in the past, they can be disrespectful towards people with disabilities and should be avoided.

To show inclusiveness and sensitivity to students, you may want to use the phrase "students who are receiving services," which could include physical or mental help, or "students with a verified disability." GVSU has services for students with disabilities and a wide variety of accommodations can be made if needed. 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. 

Remember that many chronic conditions and disabilities are invisible. Do not assume that because you do not know that someone is living with a disability that they are not. 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, as amended.

** Main source: National Center on Disability and Journalism/Disability Language Style Guide
GVSU START Project: Language Matters: A Reflection on the Critical Use of Language - START Project - Grand Valley State University (

Terms to Avoid

  • Able-bodied or normal (referring to a person who does not have a disability)
  • Afflicted with
  • Confined to a wheelchair
  • Crazy, insane, nuts, psycho, deaf and dumb/deaf-mute
  • Defect, birth defect, defective
  • Demented, senile
  • Differently abled: Use physical disability
  • Epileptic fit: The term seizure is preferred when referring to the brief manifestation of symptoms common among those with epilepsy.
  • Handicapped: Use disability
  • Hearing impaired: Use deaf or hard of hearing
  • Mentally retarded: Always try to specify the type of disability being referenced. Otherwise, the terms mental disability, intellectual disability and developmental disability are acceptable.
  • 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.
  • Spastic, a spaz
  • Special needs: Use intellectual disability
  • Stricken with, suffers from, victim of
  • Visually impaired: Use blind or partially sighted
  • Wheelchair-bound (preferred: person who uses a wheelchair, wheelchair user)

Page last modified September 1, 2022