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Consider these guidelines when communicating with or about disabled people.
1. Language guidelines
Not everyone will agree on everything but there is general agreement on some basic guidelines.
1.1 Collective terms and labels
The word ‘disabled’ is a description not a group of people. Use ‘disabled people’ not ‘the disabled’ as the collective term.
However, many deaf people whose first language is BSL consider themselves part of ‘the deaf community’ – they may describe themselves as ‘Deaf’, with a capital D, to emphasise their deaf identity.
Avoid medical labels. They say little about people as individuals and tend to reinforce stereotypes of disabled people as ‘patients’ or unwell.
Don’t automatically refer to ‘disabled people’ in all communications – many people who need disability benefits and services don’t identify with this term. Consider using ‘people with health conditions or impairments’ if it seems more appropriate.
1.2 Positive not negative
Avoid phrases like ‘suffers from’ which suggest discomfort, constant pain and a sense of hopelessness.
Wheelchair users may not view themselves as ‘confined to’ a wheelchair – try thinking of it as a mobility aid instead.
1.3 Everyday phrases
Most disabled people are comfortable with the words used to describe daily living. People who use wheelchairs ‘go for walks’ and people with visual impairments may be very pleased – or not – ‘to see you’. An impairment may just mean that some things are done in a different way.
Common phrases that may associate impairments with negative things should be avoided, for example ‘deaf to our pleas’ or ‘blind drunk’.
2. Words to use and avoid
Avoid passive, victim words. Use language that respects disabled people as active individuals with control over their own lives.
(the) handicapped, (the) disabled
afflicted by, suffers from, victim of
has [name of condition or impairment]
confined to a wheelchair, wheelchair-bound
mentally handicapped, mentally defective, retarded, subnormal
with a learning disability (singular) with learning disabilities (plural)
person with cerebral palsy
mental patient, insane, mad
person with a mental health condition
deaf and dumb; deaf mute
deaf, user of British Sign Language (BSL), person with a hearing impairment
people with visual impairments; blind people; blind and partially sighted people
an epileptic, diabetic, depressive, and so on
person with epilepsy, diabetes, depression or someone who has epilepsy, diabetes, depression
someone with restricted growth or short stature
fits, spells, attacks
3. Some tips on behaviour
use a normal tone of voice, don’t patronise or talk down
don’t be too precious or too politically correct – being super-sensitive to the right and wrong language and depictions will stop you doing anything
never attempt to speak or finish a sentence for the person you are talking to
address disabled people in the same way as you talk to everyone else
speak directly to a disabled person, even if they have an interpreter or companion with them