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An Introductory Guide to Disability Language and Empowerment

Greetings from the Syracuse University Disability Cultural Center (DCC)! The purpose of this language guide is to provide you with some information on the different types of language that are used frequently when communicating about disability.  As excellent guides to disability language and etiquette already exist (see resource list at the end of this page), this particular source does not provide extensive information on all of the terminology and concepts one is likely to encounter.  In producing this guide, we are demonstrating our commitment to promoting disability cultures and disability pride.  Readers do not need to have previous knowledge of these concepts.  Since we at the DCC feel that "disability studies" and "disability culture" are politicized concepts, this guide was not created from a politically neutral standpoint.  Our intention is to inform readers about the concepts and how they relate to disability language use, not to force anyone to agree or disagree with them. This language guide is designed to be as accessible as possible to everyone, including (but not limited to) students, faculty, staff, parents, teachers, and other community members with and without disabilities and disability identities. If you have any questions, comments, or other feedback, or have any difficulties accessing parts of this guide, please send an email to We also welcome any suggestions and resources you might wish to share. Please note that some of the content below includes embedded hyperlinks, which show up as bold, red text on the page.  Each hyperlink on this site opens in a new window.  Many of these links are PDF files, so if you are unable to open them, please visit to download Adobe Reader.  Enjoy!

So… What is 'disability studies'? What about 'disability culture'?

Why is language important? Isn't it just about 'political correctness' and semantics?

Some individuals may feel that using language considered polite or inoffensive is unnecessary.  However, it's important to keep in mind that offensive language is offensive for a reason; various words and concepts used to describe disability all have their own histories and implications for people with disabilities (Linton, 1998).  Being "politically correct" does not make a term automatically inoffensive to a group of people; indeed, many "politically correct" words and phrases used to refer to disability can actually be insulting to some of the people to whom these labels are attached.

Saying "differently abled" or "special," for instance, may seem on the surface to convey that someone with a disability has positive qualities about them.  However, terms like these tend to be euphemistic, and are not frequently used by the people to whom they refer (Linton, 1998, pp. 14-16).

What is 'people-first language'? Does everyone use it?

"People-first" or "person-first" language is a way of describing disability that involves putting the word "person" or "people" before the word "disability" or the name of a disability, rather than placing the disability first and using it as an adjective.  Some examples of people-first language might include saying "person with a disability," "woman with cerebral palsy," and "man with an intellectual disability."  The purpose of people-first language is to promote the idea that someone's disability label is just a disability label—not the defining characteristic of the entire individual.  Many guides on disability language and etiquette may likely emphasize using person-first language, except, perhaps, when discussing certain disability cultural groups that explicitly describe themselves with disability-first language.  Thus, while it is generally a safe bet to use people-first language, there are members of certain disability groups in the US who prefer not to use it, such as the American Deaf community and a number of Autistic people/Autistics.  The basic reason behind members of these groups' dislike for the application of people-first language to themselves is that they consider their disabilities to be inseparable parts of who they are.  Using person-first language, some also argue, makes the disability into something negative, which can and should be separated from the person.

What does it mean to 'reclaim' a word, and why is reclaiming important?

When members of a group "reclaim" a word, they take a term that was previously used against them as a slur, and give it a positive meaning, within that particular group, as an expression of solidarity and pride in one's identity.  Some members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities, for example, have reclaimed the term "queer," a longtime degrading term for LGBT peoples.  Similarly, some disability cultural groups have reclaimed negative terms like "crip" (Linton, 1998).  However, in some cases, reclaimed terms may be very context-dependent, continuing to retain their original, negative connotations outside of the communities that seek to reclaim them.  While it may be appropriate for someone who is a member of a group to use a term in a reclaimed way due to having the personal experiences that allow them to understand when, why, and how to use such a term (and the implications of using it the wrong way), it may not be appropriate for someone outside of the group to do so.

Some notes on capitalization:

In the context of certain disabilities, the same word or phrase can have different meanings depending on how certain letters are capitalized, and whether the words or phrases are split in unusual ways, such as with slashes or parentheses.  One of the classic examples of this is the difference between "big D" Deaf and "little d" deaf; whereas the term "deaf," with a lowercase "d," refers to one physically being deaf, when spelled with a capital "D," it refers to membership and/or affiliation with respect to Deaf culture and Deaf communities (American Heritage Dictionary, 2012; "D/deaf Culture," n.d.)  Members of some other disability communities also use capitalization at times to emphasize their cultural identification with these communities (see e.g., Question #18, here).

Where can I find more information and specifics about disability etiquette, language, and culture, and the field of disability studies?
Check out the list, below!  Please note that this list will be revised, periodically.

Guides to language use/etiquette (Note: these tend to emphasize person-first language)

United Spinal Association. (2008). Disability etiquette: Tips on interacting with people with disabilities. Jackson Heights, NY: Author. Retrieved from

Discussions on language use/disability studies, written by self-advocates and/or disability studies scholars

Bell, C. M. (Ed.). (2011). Blackness and disability: Critical examinations and cultural interventions. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press.

Brown, L. (2011, August 4). The significance of semantics: Person-first language: Why it matters. In Autistic Hoya. Retrieved December 6, 2012, from

Brown, L. (2012). Ableist words and terms to avoid. In Autistic Hoya. Retrieved December 6, 2012, from

Brown, L. (2012). Autism FAQ. In Autistic Hoya. Retrieved December 6, 2012, from

(Brown's blog,, has a number of instructive posts on disability language, from the perspectives of members of the Autistic community.)

Danforth, S. (2002, February). New words for new purposes: A challenge for the AAMR. Mental Retardation, 40(1), 51-52. Retrieved from

Dierks, K., Kelly, R., Matsubara, L., Romero, J. R., & Takahashi, K. (2007). Disability awareness toolkit. Retrieved from

Harbour, W. (2012). Wendy's world | Adventures of a Deaf disability studies professor. Retrieved December 6, 2012, from

Kuusisto, S. (n.d.). Planet of the blind: It's not as dark as you think. Retrieved December 6, 2012, from

Linton, Simi. (1998). Reassigning meaning. In S. Linton, Claiming disability: Knowledge and identity (pp. 8-33). New York, NY: New York University Press.

Oaks, D. (2012, August 28; latest update when reviewed for this handbook). Let's stop saying "mental illness"!. In Let's stop saying "mental illness"! — MFI Portal. Retrieved December 6, 2012, from

Price, M. (2011). Mad at school: Rhetorics of mental disability and academic life (pp. 19, 196-229). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Shakespeare, T. (2010). The social model of disability. In L. Davis (Ed.), The Disability Studies Reader (3rd ed., pp. 266-273). New York, NY: Routledge.

Sinclair, J. (1999). Why I dislike "person first" language. In CafeMom. Retrieved from

The language of disability (2008, April 15). In Diary of a goldfish. Retrieved December 6, 2012, from

Whitaker, R. (2002). Mad In America: Bad science, bad medicine, and the enduring mistreatment of the mentally ill. New York, NY: Perseus  Books.

Other resources

American Heritage Dictionary Entry: deaf (2012). In The American Heritage Dictionary of the English language. Retrieved from

Baynton, D. C. (1996). Forbidden signs: American culture and the campaign against sign language. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

D/deaf culture. (n.d.). In Living Deaf. Retrieved December 6, 2012, from

Folkins, J. (1992, December). Resource on person-first language: The language used to describe individuals with disabilities. In Resource on person-first language. Retrieved from

Garcia, N. (2013, February). Understanding disability etiquette. In The Campus. Retrieved from

The Icarus Project | Navigating the space between brilliance and madness. Retrieved from

Kenney, C. (2010, May 23). For many, use of the r-word hits painfully close to home. In For many, use of the r-word hits painfully close to home. Retrieved from

Kids as Self-Advocates (n.d.) Respectful disability language. Albuquerque, NM.

Shapiro, J. P. (1993). No pity: People with disabilities forging a new civil rights movement. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.

Special Olympics (n.d.) Special Olympics disability language guidelines. Washington, DC. Retrieved from

Snow, K. (2002-12). The case against "special needs". In Retrieved from

Snow, K. (2010). To ensure inclusion, freedom, and respect for all, it’s time to embrace people first language. In Disability is natural. Retrieved from

Stubblefield, A. (2007). "Beyond the pale": Tainted whiteness, cognitive disability, and eugenic sterilization. Hypatia22(2), 162-181.

United States Agency for International Development (USAID). (2007). Language and disability. Washington, DC: Anne Hayes. Retrieved from


Language Guide created 2012 by DCC Graduate Assistant Alex Umstead