Formerly House with No Steps and The Tipping Foundation

Disability language guide

Some words that are used to describe disability (often learnt as a child) are hurtful. Here are some of the right things to say.

Using respectful disability terminology and language

When a person has a disability, it doesn’t define who they are.

Some words that are used to describe people with a disability (perhaps learnt as a child) can be hurtful.

Here are some of the right and wrong ways of talking about a person with a disability.

Words to avoid and the acceptable alternatives


Avoid normal person

Use person without a disability


Avoid disabled, handicapped, invalid, special needs, defected, deformed

Use person with a disability


Avoid retarded, tard, moron, intellectually challenged

Use person with an intellectual disability


Avoid mongol, mongoloid, mong, downsy

Use person with Down syndrome


Avoid spastic, spaz

Use person with a disability, person with cerebral palsy


Avoid paraplegic, quadriplegic

Use person with paraplegia, person with quadriplegia


Avoid confined to a wheelchair, wheelchair bound

Use uses a wheelchair


Avoid cripple, physically challenged

Use physical disability


Avoid dumb

Use non-verbal


Avoid dwarf, midget, little person, vertically challenged

Use short-statured person


Avoid insane, lunatic, maniac, mental, psycho, psychopath, crazy, skitzo

Use person with a mental illness


Avoid institution

Use mental health clinic


How to talk to people with disabilities

When you’re talking with a person who has a disability, just be yourself. Make sure you:

  • Look someone in the eye
  • Talk directly to the person – don’t talk to their companion instead
  • Never speak about the person as if they can’t understand or respond
  • Don’t assume a person can’t do things
  • Ask someone first before offering help – they may not need it!
  • Don’t pat or talk to a guide dog or service animal – these animals are working so shouldn’t be distracted
  • Don’t assume a person with a disability has other disabilities. Eg, someone who has low vision can still hear you, there is no need to shout.