Accessibility guide cover 2nd edition

Disability language - words matter

The words and images that are used and the way information is presented can play a major role in shaping perceptions and attitudes. The portrayal of disabled people can promote equality, inclusion and full citizenship or it can contribute to society’s negative stereotypes.

The language we use influences how we think about people and situations. The medical model views disability as a “problem” that is the responsibility of the disabled person. The social model uses language that locates the “problem” within social attitudes, systems and practices that act as barriers to full participation.

When meeting disabled people, especially for the first time, be yourself and don’t worry about saying the wrong think or acting correctly. This is much more likely to be a positive start to the relationship than if you appear awkward or patronising.

Most disabled people are comfortable with the words to describe daily living. People who use wheelchairs “go for walks” and people with vision impairments may be pleased, or not, “to see you.”

Common phases that may associate impairments with negative things should be avoided, for example “deaf to our pleas” or “blind drunk.”

Disabled people vs people with disabilities

In New Zealand we use the term disabled people. During the development of the New Zealand Disability Strategy there was much discussion and consultation on the language to be used and in the end 'disabled people' was chosen- rather than 'person with disability', 'people with disabilities', 'people with experience of disability' etc. The reasoning was that:

  • people are people first
  • they have particular impairments or conditions, that is, they are people with impairments e.g. a person with a vision impairment, or a hearing loss, or limited mobility.
  • attitudinal and physical barriers in the world we all live in disable them
  • therefore, they are disabled people (or, more accurately, people disabled by the way we build and organise our world). 'Disabled' refers to things outside the person that impact on them and put barriers in the way of their participation.

This use is explained in the New Zealand Disability Strategy and is strongly supported by DPA. However, individuals and groups have continued to use the language they feel most comfortable with e.g. ‘people with an intellectual disability’ or, even more preferred, ‘people with learning disabilities’. And it was 'people with disabilities' that the disabled people's organisations present at the United Nations were comfortable with. However, as people come to understand the reason above they tend to feel more comfortable with 'disabled people'.

Words to use and avoid

Use language that respects disabled people as active individuals with control over their own lives.

Don’t use language that portrays disabled people as victims, such as “suffers from,” “challenged.



Afflicted by, suffers from, victim of

Has (name of condition or impairment) e.g. person with cerebral palsy

Attack, spell, fit


Birth defects, deformity

Person born with disability

Person with a disability from birth

Wheelchair bound, confined to a wheelchair

Someone who uses a wheelchair or wheelchair user

Hearing impaired, hard of hearing,

Person who is hard of hearing


Person with a mobility impairment

The blind

Blind people



People who are visually impaired/ have serious sight problems/loss

People who have a visual impairment

The symptoms of a condition

The effects of a condition

People who have special needs

People who have particular requirements

Disclosing a disability

Telling people about a disability

Mentally retarded, retard, slow

Person with an intellectual (learning) disability


Person who has muscle spasms

Deaf-mute, deaf and dumb

New Zealand Sign Language users identify as the Deaf

Person who is deaf or the deaf (non NZSL user)

Dwarf, midget

Person of short stature


Person who has schizophrenia


Person with a physical disability

Person with a mobility impairment

Person who walks with crutches

Person who uses a walker


Person who has epilepsy


Person without a disability

Note: don’t use heroic language when disabled people complete everyday tasks and responsibilities. Disabled people don’t see themselves as inspiring simply because they’re going about their daily lives. We all have challenges – working around those challenges is not heroic, it’s just human.

View: Stella Young – [Video 9 mins 13 sec]

Accessibility guide cover 2nd edition


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