Three older siblings smiling alongside their brother who is sitting in an adapted stroller
How We Speak About People with Disabilities Matters

As Christians, we believe that all people are created by God, in his image, and therefore worthy of respect. Historically, people with disabilities have been viewed as broken or flawed creations; “lesser” persons who deserve little or no respect. Sadly, disabilities have been used in derogatory and discriminatory manners.

How we think and speak about people with disabilities matters. When we describe a person by his or her disability, e.g. “an autistic child,” we let the disability define the person, which is inherently disrespectful. In our speech, by putting the person first followed by the disability, e.g. a “child who has autism,” we affirm what is true: this is a person, defined as an image-bearer of God who is worthy of respect…and happens to have a disability. Respectful language, as in “a person who has…”, puts the person first.

It is important not to think of a person primarily by his or her disability or to pity a person because of the disability. To be respectful, avoid using a disability as an adjective to describe someone. Instead, always put the person before the disability.

Here are some helpful examples of person-first language and actions:

Respectful Language and Actions Disrespectful Language and Actions
a person who has a disability is disabled or is handicapped
a person without disabilities normal, healthy, able-bodied, whole
a person who has… afflicted with…, suffers from…, victim of…
person who has an intellectual disability is retarded, mentally retarded
person who has Down syndrome is Downs, is a Downs person, mongoloid
a person who has autism, Autism Spectrum Disorder is autistic
a person who has cerebral palsy is spastic, is a spaz
a person who has ADD or ADHD is ADD or ADHD
a person who has a psychiatric disability is mentally ill, schizo, psycho, crazy, lost their mind
a person who has a physical disability is crippled, is lame
person who uses a wheelchair, a wheelchair user is wheelchair bound, confined to a wheelchair
accessible bathroom, parking spot, entrance handicapped bathroom, parking spot, entrance
speaking directly to the person with a disability speaking to a caregiver instead of the person
asking the person with disabilities if he or she needs help doing something for a person with a disability that he or she could do for themselves
moving to eye-level when speaking to a person who uses a wheelchair towering over and speaking down to person who is in a wheelchair
listening sensitively without judgement to the struggles of a person with special needs minimizing the struggles or making into overachievers with comments such as, “I couldn’t do what you do. You must be so special.”

Please also read Honoring the Image of God in People with Disabilities.


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