Protected Tomorrows®’ Guidelines for Writing About Individuals With Special Needs put people first

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Protected Tomorrows®’ Guidelines for Writing About Individuals With Special Needs

PUT PEOPLE FIRST, not their disability.  Say woman with arthritis, children who are deaf, people with disabilities.  This puts the focus on the individual, not the particular functional limitation.  Because of editorial pressures to be succinct, we know it is not always possible to put people first.  If the portrayal is positive and accurate, consider the following variations: disabled citizens, nondisabled people, wheelchair-user, deaf girl, paralyzed child and so on.  Crippled, deformed, suffers from, victim of, the retarded, infirmed, the deaf and dumb, etc. are never acceptable under any circumstances.  Also, do not use nouns to describe people, such as epileptic, diabetic, etc.

EMPHASIZE ABILITIES, not limitations.  For example: uses a wheelchair/braces, walks with crutches, rather than confined to a wheelchair, wheelchair bound, differently abled, birth difference or crippled.  Similarly, do not use emotional descriptors such as unfortunate, pitiful and so forth.

DO NOT FOCUS ON DISABILITY unless it is crucial to a story.  Avoid tear-jerking human interest stories about incurable diseases, congenital impairments or severe injury.  Focus instead on issues such as accessible transportation, housing, affordable health care, employment opportunities and discrimination.

  Even though the public may admire superacheivers, portraying people with disabilities as superstars raises false expectations that all people with disabilities should achieve this level.

by saying afflicted with, crippled with, suffers from, victim of, and so on.  Instead, say person who has multiple sclerosis.

DO NOT USE GENERIC LABELS for disability groups, such as “the retarded,” “the deaf.”  Emphasize people, not labels.  Say people with mental retardation or people who are deaf.

DO NOT USE CONDESCENDING EUPHEMISMS.  Disability groups also strongly object to using euphemisms to describe disabilities.  Terms such as handicapable, mentally different, physically inconvenienced and physically challenged are considered condescending.  They reinforce the idea that disabilities cannot be dealt with up front.

DO NOT IMPLY DISEASE when discussing disabilities that result from a prior disease episode.  People who had polio and experienced after effects have post polio syndrome.  They are not currently experiencing the disease.  Do not imply disease with people whose disability has resulted from anatomical or physiological damage (e.g., person with spina bifida or cerebral palsy).  Reference to disease associated with a disability is acceptable only with chronic diseases, such as arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, or multiple sclerosis.  People with disabilities should never be referred to as patients or cases unless their relationship with their doctor is under discussion.

SHOW PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES AS ACTIVE participants of society.  Portraying persons with disabilities interacting with nondisabled people in social and work environments helps break down barriers and open lines of communication.



accessible parking/accommodations

handicapped accessible

children with disabilities

special children



individual with a disability

crippled, physically challenged, handicapped

individual with epilepsy


individual with a learning disability

slow learner

individual with multiple sclerosis (MS)

person who suffers from MS

individual who is blind or visually impaired

the blind

individual who is deaf or hearing impaired

the deaf

individual who uses a wheelchair

wheelchair-bound/confined to a wheelchair

individual of short stature

dwarf or midget

stroke survivor/had a stroke

stroke victim/suffered from a stroke

Individual with dyslexia



The following entries provide some terminology assistance and grammar tips:

able-bodied: The term able-bodied should be avoided and is not accurate to describe a person who does not have a disability. Accessible environments and adaptive equipment allow many individuals with disabilities to be able-bodied. Use the term non-disabled or the phrase does not experience a disability when it is necessary to distinguish that a person does not have a disability. Avoid using the term able-bodied.

accessible, accessibility: Use accessible when describing a space, location or event that is modified to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Accessible modifications allow unrestricted admittance to accommodate individuals who may or may not use a wheelchair as a result of mobility impairments as well as individuals who may have sensory impairments. The term accessibility also includes modifications for individuals who communicate in different languages, have hearing or vision impairments, and other cognitive and learning disabilities.

ADA: Americans with Disabilities Act.

autism: Autism is a mental disorder characterized by indicators such as significant language dysfunction, withdrawal from reality, difficulty interacting socially, and repetitive behavior. Use the phrase individual with autism. Avoid the term autistic.

ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder): ADHD is a syndrome of learning and behavioral problems that is not caused by any serious underlying physical or mental disorder and is characterized especially by difficulty in sustaining attention, impulsive behavior, and usually by excessive activity. Do not say hyperactive. Say person with ADHD.

blind: Blind describes a condition in which a person has loss of vision for ordinary life purposes. Visually impaired is the generic term used by some individuals to refer to all degrees of vision loss. Say boy who is blind, girl who is visually impaired, or man who has low vision.

brain injury: Brain injury describes a condition where there is long-term or temporary disruption in brain function resulting from injury to the brain. Difficulties with cognitive, physical, emotional and/or social functioning may occur. Do not say brain damaged. Say person with a brain injury, woman who has sustained brain injury, or boy with an acquired brain injury.

chronic fatigue syndrome: Chronic Fatigue syndrome, also called chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome, describes a serious chronic condition in which individuals experience six or more months of fatigue accompanied by physical and cognitive symptoms. Do not use terms such as Yuppie Flu, malingering, and hypochondriasis as they are pejorative, imply personality disorders, and are not scientifically supportable. Say person with chronic fatigue syndrome.

cleft lip: Cleft lip describes a specific congenital disability involving the lip and gum. The term hare lip is anatomically incorrect and stigmatizing. Say person who has a cleft lip or a cleft palate.

congenital disability: Congenital disability describes a disability that has existed since birth but is not necessarily hereditary. The terms birth defect and deformity are inappropriate. Say person with a congenital disability.

deaf: Deaf refers to a profound degree of hearing loss that prevents understanding speech through the ear. Hearing impaired or hearing loss are generic terms used by some individuals to indicate any degree of hearing loss-from mild to profound. These terms include people who are hard of hearing and deaf. However, some individuals completely disfavor the term hearing impaired. Others prefer to use deaf or hard of hearing. Hard of hearing refers to a mild to moderate hearing loss that may or may not be corrected with amplification. Say woman who is deaf, boy who is hard of hearing, individuals with hearing losses, people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

deinstitutionalization: A movement that strives to relocate individuals with disabilities from segregated institutional environments to supportive and inclusive community settings.

developmental disability (DD): Developmental disability is any mental and/or physical disability starting before the age of 22 and continuing indefinitely. It limits one or more major life activities such as self-care, language, learning, mobility, self-direction, independent living and economic self-sufficiency. This includes individuals with mental retardation, cerebral palsy, autism, epilepsy and other seizure disorders, sensory impairments, congenital disabilities, traumatic injuries, or conditions caused by disease (polio, muscular dystrophy, etc.). It may also be the result of multiple disabilities. Say person with a developmental disability.

disability: Disability is a general term used for a functional limitation that interferes with a person's ability, for example, to walk, lift, heal, or learn. It may refer to a physical, sensory or mental condition. Do not refer to people with disabilities as the handicapped, handicapped persons, or special. Handicap can be used when citing laws and situations, but should never be used to describe a person or disability. Say as a descriptive noun or adjective, such as person living with AIDS, woman who is blind, or man with a disability.

disfigurement: Disfigurement refers to physical changes caused by burns, trauma, disease or congenital conditions. Do not say burn victim. Say burn survivor, or adult with burns, or child with burns.

down syndrome: Down syndrome describes a chromosome disorder that usually causes a delay in physical, intellectual and language development. Usually results in mental retardation. Mongol, Mongoloid, and Downs child/person are unacceptable. Say person with Down syndrome. Not Down’s syndrome.

HIV/AIDS: HIV/AIDS acquired immunodeficiency syndrome is an infectious disease resulting in the loss of the body's immune system to ward off infections. The disease is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). A positive test for HIV can occur without symptoms of the illnesses that usually develop up to 10 years later including tuberculosis, recurring pneumonia, cancer, recurrent vaginal yeast infections, intestinal ailments, chronic weakness and fever and profound weight loss. Don't say AIDS victim. Say people living with HIV, people with AIDS or living with AIDS.

inclusion: A term that implies that all individuals with a disability, regardless of their ability, are part of typical classrooms, schools, local and world communities. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and its 1997 amendments make it clear that schools have a duty to educate children with disabilities in general education classrooms.

learning disability: Learning disability describes a permanent condition that affects the way individuals take in, retain and express information. Some groups prefer specific learning disability, because it emphasizes that only certain learning processes are affected. Do not say slow learner, retarded, etc., which are different from learning disabilities. Say person with a learning disability.

mental disability: The Federal Rehabilitation Act (Section 504) lists four categories under mental disability: psychiatric disability, retardation, learning disability, or cognitive impairment as acceptable terms. Always precede these terms with, "person with..."

mental retardation: Mental retardation refers to substantial intellectual delay that requires environmental or personal supports to live independently. Mental retardation is manifested by below-average intellectual functioning in two or more life areas (work, education, daily living, etc.) and is present before the age of 18. Don't use subnormal or the retarded. Say people with mental retardation.

multiple chemical sensitivities: Multiple chemical sensitivities describes a chronic condition characterized by neurological impairment, muscle pain and weakness, respiratory problems and gastrointestinal complaints triggered by contact with low level exposure to common substances including pesticides, new carpet, particleboard, cleaning agents and perfumes. Some people react to foods and electromagnetic fields. Do not use psychosomatic or 20th Century disease. Say person with chemical intolerance or environmental illness.

nondisabled: Nondisabled is the appropriate term for people without disabilities. Normal, able-bodied, temporarily able-bodied, healthy, or whole are inappropriate.

person-first language: person-first language seeks to avoid reducing people to a set of labels. When writing about disability or health-related issues, this effort avoids placing a disability or condition before an individual. We are all people first, no matter what labels we have acquired.

post-polio syndrome: Post-polio syndrome is a condition that affects persons who have had poliomyelitis (polio) long after recovery from the disease and that is characterized by muscle weakness, joint and muscle pain and fatigue. Do not use polio victim. Say person with post-polio syndrome.

psychiatric disability: Psychiatric disability psychotic, schizophrenic, neurotic, and other specific terms should be used only in proper clinical context and should be checked carefully for medical and legal accuracy. Words such as crazy, maniac, lunatic, demented, schizo, and psycho are offensive and should never be applied to people with mental health problems or anyone else. Acceptable terms are people with psychiatric disabilities, psychiatric illnesses, emotional disorders, or mental disorders.

regular education initiative: A term used to describe the movement from segregated learning environments to educational settings that encourage collaborative and inclusive relationships between general and special education programs.

seeing eye dog: A trademark for a guide dog trained by Seeing Eye Inc. of Morristown, N.J. Use personal assistance animal, companion animal, or service animal.

seizure: Seizure describes an involuntary muscular contraction, a brief impairment or loss of consciousness, etc., resulting from a neurological condition such as epilepsy or from an acquired brain injury. The term convulsion should be used only for seizures involving contraction of the entire body. Do not use fit, spastic, or attacks. Rather than epileptic, say girl with epilepsy or boy with a seizure disorder.

small/short stature: Small/short stature describes people under 4'10" tall. Do not refer to these individuals as dwarfs or midgets, which implies a less than full adult status in society. Dwarfism is an accepted medical term, but it should not be used as general terminology. Say persons of small (or short) stature. Some groups prefer the term "little people."

special education: Educational services including instruction, as well as related services such as occupational therapy, physical therapy, psychology and speech and language therapy that are designed to ensure students with disabilities receive the supports and services needed to meet educational goals.

speech disorder: Speech disorder is a condition in which a person has limited or difficult speech patterns. Do not use mute or dumb. Use child who has a speech disorder. For a person with no verbal speech capability, say woman without speech.

spinal cord injury: Spinal cord injury describes a condition in which there has been permanent damage to the spinal cord. Quadriplegia denotes substantial or significant loss of function in all four extremities. Paraplegia refers to substantial or significant loss of function in the lower part of the body only. Say man with paraplegia, woman who is paralyzed, or person with a spinal cord injury.

stroke: Stroke is caused by interruption of blood to the brain. Hemiplegia (paralysis on one side) may result. Stroke survivor or person who has had a stroke is preferred over stroke victim.

substance dependence: Substance dependence refers to patterns of substance use that result in significant impairment in at least three life areas (family, employment, health, etc.) over any 12-month period. Substance dependence is generally characterized by impaired control over consumption, preoccupation with the substance, and denial of impairment in life areas. Substance dependence may include physiological dependence/tolerance withdrawal. Although such terms as alcoholic and addict are medically acceptable, they may be derogatory to some individuals. Acceptable terms are people who are substance dependent or people who are alcohol dependent. An individual who has a history of dependence on alcohol and/or other drugs and is no longer using alcohol or drugs may identify themselves as recovering or as a person in recovery.

wheelchair: Avoid the phrases confined to a wheelchair or wheelchair user. Instead, use phrases such as uses a wheelchair, and other person-first configurations.

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