Physical Disability Terms


The state statute that created the Council, section 15.197 (4), defines physical disability as: "a physical condition, including an anatomical loss or musculoskeletal, neurological, respiratory or cardiovascular impairment, which results from injury, disease or congenital disorder and which significantly interferes with or significantly limits at least one major life activity of a person."

For an alternative description, consult the Americans with Disabilities Act definitions of physical impairment and disability.

Positive Language

Choosing positive words can empower people. Inappropriate terms convey inaccurate information and harmful stereotypes. Here are four simple tips on how to write and speak affirmatively about people with disabilities.

1. Put the person first.

Each of us has a variety of characteristics—hair color, sex and height, for example. For some people, disability is one of those characteristics. Regardless of our differences, however, we are all human.

When writing and speaking about people with disabilities, emphasize the person and not the disability. Use language that puts people first.

Our senator is a person with epilepsy.
The supervisor is a woman with a spinal cord injury.
This building is accessible to people with disabilities.

2. No one is bound or confined to a wheelchair.

Wheelchairs are tools that enable people to move about. Some people with mobility impairments use a wheelchair at various times during the day, but no one stays in a wheelchair all day long. Some people transfer out of their wheelchair to use a toilet. All wheelchair users, whether on their own or with help, transfer out of their chair and into bed at night.

When writing or speaking about adaptive equipment used by people with disabilities, recognize its positive and liberating value.

3. People with disabilities are not automatically courageous.

It is tempting to believe that people with disabilities have a special talent to endure and to overcome—to bravely face their disability. But people with disabilities are neither more nor less courageous than anyone else.

When writing and speaking about people with disabilities, remember that every one of us has challenges in our lives. Describe people with disabilities as successful, productive or accomplished—but not as being gifted with special courage.

4. Avoid terms that devalue people with disabilities.

Some terms that have been used in the past are now considered hurtful and demeaning. Imagine how you would feel being described with these common but out-of-date words and phrases: crippled, suffers from, lame, afflicted with, victim.

When writing and speaking about people with disabilities, eliminate words that describe their lives as limited or pitiful. Avoid reducing people to cases and patients—instead of referring to an AIDS patient or a multiple sclerosis case, choose dignified phrases like a man living with AIDS and a woman with multiple sclerosis.

Underlying all these suggestions is one basic notion: put the person first, using language that dignifies and affirms our common humanity.