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The use of certain words or phrases can express gender, ethnic, or racial bias either intentionally or unintentionally. The same is true of language referring to persons with disabilities, which in many instances can express negative and disparaging attitudes.

It is recommended that the word disability be used to refer to an attribute of a person, and handicap to refer to the source of limitations. Sometimes a disability itself may handicap a person, as when a person with one arm is handicapped in playing the violin. However, when the limitation is environmental, as in the case of attitudinal, legal, and architectural barriers, the disability is not handicapping—the environmental factor is. This distinction is important because the environment is frequently overlooked as a major source of limitation, even when it is far more limiting than the disability. Thus, prejudice handicaps people by denying access to opportunities; inaccessible buildings surrounded by steps and curbs handicap people who require the use of a ramp.

Use of the terms nondisabled or persons without disabilities is preferable to the term normal when comparing persons with disabilities with others. Usage of normal makes the unconscious comparison of abnormal, thus stigmatizing those individuals with differences. For example, state "a nondisabled control group," not "a normal control group."

The guiding principle for nonhandicapping language is to maintain the integrity of individuals as whole human beings by avoiding language that

  • implies that a person as a whole is disabled (e.g., disabled person)
  • equates a person with his or her condition (e.g., epileptic)
  • has superfluous, negative overtones (e.g., stroke victim)
  • is regarded as a slur (e.g., cripple).

For decades, persons with disabilities have been identified by their disability first, and as persons, second. Often, persons with disabilities are viewed as being afflicted with, or being victims of, a disability. In focusing on the disability, an individual's strengths, abilities, skills, and resources are often ignored. In many instances, persons with disabilities are viewed neither as having the capacity or right to express their goals and preferences nor as being resourceful and contributing members of society. Many words and phrases commonly used when discussing persons with disabilities reflect these biases.

Listed below are examples of negative, stereotypical, and sometimes offensive words and expressions. Also listed are examples of preferred language, which describes without implying a negative judgment. Even though their connotations may change with time, the rationale behind use of these expressions provides a basis for language reevaluation.

The specific recommendations are not intended to be all-inclusive. The basic principles, however, apply in the formulation of all nonhandicapping language.

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