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What Not to Say When Talking about People with Disabilities

Updated on October 16, 2014
What to avoid saying about people with disabilities
What to avoid saying about people with disabilities | Source

The debate over the use of politically correct use of language in our culture has been a hot topic in recent years. While some people believe our language has taken political correctness too far, the way we talk about groups of people in our society really can have significant impacts on our relationships.

Just like we no longer use certain phrases to refer to racial minorities that may have been acceptable in the past or wouldn’t dream of calling our boss or coworkers certain names in the workplace no matter how well we get along with them, using inappropriate language to refer to people with disabilities can be damaging. Check out the below list of words and phrases you should avoid using to talk about people with disabilities and alternative words to use instead.

Wheelchair Bound or Confined to a Wheelchair

People are not "bound" to their wheelchair
People are not "bound" to their wheelchair | Source
  • Why this phrase should be avoided:

    Referring to people with disabilities as “wheelchair bound” or “confined to a wheelchair” takes the focus off of them as a person. In essence using this phrase implies that the person with the disability is glued to their wheelchair, they are stuck in their wheelchair, or they cannot separate themselves from their chair. While some people may think that using this phrase is just a simple way to describe a wheelchair user, it implies a negative connotation.

    People who use wheelchairs are not “wheelchair bound,” they are contributing members of your community, many of whom hold jobs, have families, are consumers, and have valuable gifts to contribute. Everyone sleeps in a bed, drives in a car, or uses a toilet – people in wheelchairs are no different. They are not “confined” to their wheelchair 24 x 7 x 365. Wheelchair users should be described first as people, not as “bound” to the piece of equipment they use to help give them mobility.

  • What to say instead:

    If you are trying to describe someone who uses a wheelchair, try using these phrases instead:

    Person who uses a wheelchair or wheelchair user. Or simply learn the person’s name and call them by that instead!

Special, Crippled, Victim of, Suffers from and Other Unnecessary Adjectives

  • Why these words should be avoided:

    While words like special or crippled may have been acceptable decades ago, they are not acceptable to describe people who are differently abled. Some school systems even use the term “special” to describe education programs for students with physical or learning disabilities. Labeling children with disabilities as “special” is damaging for their social development and self-esteem. Children want to be like everyone else and should be treated like everyone else, even though they may need extra assistance to accommodate physical or learning needs, calling them “special” can make children feel different and only further alienate them from their peers.

    Using phrases like “victim of” or “suffers from” puts a negative connotation around disability. While these may be acceptable phrases to use to describe illness or injury in the medical profession, describing someone with a disability as a “victim of” or as “suffering from” a disability paints a portrait of pity rather than pride in our differences.

  • What to say instead:

    Try using phrases like “differently abled” instead of those listed above. When talking about a child with a disability, say just that “a child with a disability” rather than singling them out as “special.” Honor what their disability is by using the actual name of their disability instead of white washing their condition as “special.”

    Rather than saying someone is “suffering from” a disease or “is a victim of” a condition, use descriptors of their actual disability like, “he has MS” or “she was born with spina bifida.”


Avoid "handicapable" and other gimmicky words
Avoid "handicapable" and other gimmicky words | Source
  • Why this word should be avoided:

    Handicapable sprung into popular vernacular in recent years when using the word “handicapped” fell out of vogue in favor for the term “disabled.” Instead of saying someone is “handicapped,” the word “handicapable” is sometimes replaced to mean that even though someone has a disability, they are still very capable.

    Gimmicky words like these should be avoided when talking about someone’s disability. Those of us with disabilities know we have them, so we don’t need to be described with “feel good” words. Everyone on this planet is capable of providing love and significant contributions, we do not need to be reminded that “handicapped” people are capable. “Handicapable” only reinforces the stereotype that the capability of someone with a disability is less than that of an able-bodied person.

  • What to say instead:

    “Person with a disability” is the generally accepted way to describe someone with a disability. Then simply talk about their values and contributions without labeling them as “handicapable.”


  • Why this word should be avoided:

    Using images of people with disabilities to inspire has been around for years. You are probably most familiar with these types of images on inspirational posters that are hung around high schools or the work place with phrases like “the only disability in life is a bad attitude.” The problem with labeling people with disabilities as “inspirational” is that it perpetuates the stereotype that those of us with disabilities are here to inspire you. It elevates those of us with disabilities to a pedestal just because we look different or have additional physical challenges.

    While many of us with disabilities do have to overcome enormous physical challenges, that does not make us an inspiration. It’s how we live. We adapt to our bodies and our physical surroundings. We should be inspirations because of our achievements, not simply because we have a physical disability.

  • What to say instead:

    If you are tempted to say to someone with a disability, “you are so inspirational,” think twice before you say it. Ask yourself “am I saying this just because they are out in public and happen to have a physical disability?” or “am I saying it because they achieved something that is truly admirable whether they have a disability or not?”

    Instead, compliment people with disabilities for their achievements and successes that are not tied to the way they adapt to their everyday life. Or simply get to know someone with a disability on a person-to-person level rather than using their image as a motivational tool for selfish reasons.

    See what comedian and activist Stella Young, a wheelchair user with Osteogenesis Imperfecta, has to say about inspiration and disability in her Ted Talk at the following link:

I know how you feel

  • Why this word should be avoided:

    Many people use this phrase with good intentions to relate or connect with someone with a disability. Unless you live with the same disability as the person you are referring to, just don’t go there. None of us know what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. When we use phrases like “I know how you feel, I sat in a wheelchair once,” or “I know how you feel, my grandma has to use a walker every day,” you are discrediting the person’s experience. Remember, someone with a temporary injury does not have the same experience as someone with a permanent disability.

  • What to say instead:

    Simply get to know the person with a disability on a human level. It’s ok to ask about their disability – most people with disabilities are very open and will share their story with you, but if they feel uncomfortable sharing personal details, recognize those signals. Connect with the person on a personal level – talk about friends, family, hobbies, sports, the weather, anything! You may be surprised at how many levels you connect on.

It's accessible - there's only one step

Flights of stairs and accessibility
Flights of stairs and accessibility | Source
  • Why this phrase should be avoided:

    What you may consider “accessible” is probably much different than what the individual with a disability would consider accessible. Don’t pretend you know what physically accessibility looks like for others or what others may need to accommodate their needs.

  • What to say instead:

    If someone asks you about the accessibility of a location, be as descriptive as possible and let them know what entrances and exits look like, if there are stairs and how many, if there is a push button door, or elevator, etc. Ask the person with the disability what they will need and be open to the feedback they give you.

Slow down or you're going to get a speeding ticket

  • Why this phrase should be avoided:

    Most wheelchair users have probably heard this phrase more times than they would like to remember. When many people shout this phrase at a wheelchair user as they pass by, they may think they are being clever or trying to make a joke if they feel uncomfortable around someone using a wheelchair. This phrase is not clever or funny. People who use wheelchairs use them as their primary means of mobility, they are not using them for fun, nor are “racing” each other or other pedestrians. Making light of the way they are getting around calls out that they are different. Most wheelchair users already know they look different than able-bodied people who are walking around, they do not need an additional reminder via comments that liken their wheels to race cars.

  • What to say instead:

    If you feel the urge to make a racing or speed joke to someone with a disability that you do not know, avoid it. If you admire someone’s chair (and there are LOTS of cool wheelchair designs, colors, and styles out there) simply give the wheelchair user a compliment – “hey that’s a nice chair – love the color!”

You’re lucky – I wish I had a chair to sit down in. Can I have a ride?

  • Why this phrase should be avoided:

    Wheelchair users utilize their wheelchair as their primary means of getting from place to place. They use their wheelchairs out of necessity to help accommodate their physical needs, not out of convenience. This phrase implies that using a wheelchair is the user’s choice.

    A common question that almost always accompanies this phrase is “can I have a ride?” While wheelchairs can be a lot of fun (who doesn’t like performing wheelies?), a wheelchair is someone’s means of mobility and not something to be shared or used because the person chooses to want to sit down.

    While some people may view having a disability as an “unlucky” stroke of luck, many of us a proud of who we are and will tell you that having a disability has made us who we are.

  • What to say instead:

    It’s best to simply avoid telling someone with a disability that they are “lucky” because they get to use a wheelchair, crutches, or other equipment that an able bodied person may view as something neat to play around with. Instead, ask about their equipment or offer a compliment like “wow your crutches are so cool how they adjust to your height” or “that is neat how your electric wheelchair battery is so strong and lasts for such long distances, want to go for a walk with me?”

But you’re so pretty

But you're so pretty
But you're so pretty | Source
  • Why this phrase should be avoided:

    Many times, the person using a phrase like this has good intentions to compliment the person on the receiving end, but if your sentence could end with “for someone in a wheelchair,” just don’t say it.

    People with disabilities come in all shapes, sizes, heights, girths, skin colors, and hair colors. Some are beautiful, some are smart, some are charismatic, some are depressed, some are smiley, some are unfriendly-looking, and so and so on, just like people without disabilities. Being pretty or not has nothing to do with why someone has a disability.

  • What to say instead:

    If you think someone in a wheelchair is beautiful, has nice eyes, looks great in the shirt they are wearing – tell them. We all love receiving compliments, but if you are only giving a compliment to feel good about it, those are probably the wrong intentions. Give a compliment and mean it.

Are you someone with a disability who has heard any of these phrases above? How did you react? Do you have any other suggestions or alternatives to use instead of the words and phrases above?

Are you an able-bodied person who has witnessed these phrases or others being used? How did you react? How do you usually refer to people with disabilities? Share your experiences in the comments.


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    • Sherry Hewins profile image

      Sherry Hewins 

      3 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      It is interesting to learn how you feel about the things people say. Honestly, I don't see a lot of difference between "handicapable" and “differently abled.” As you pointed out, things that were acceptable to say in the past are no longer OK. Sometimes people just say what they heard growing up, and don't mean any disrespect by it.

    • whonunuwho profile image


      3 years ago from United States

      Those who may be disabled in some way truly want to be accepted for who they are. I nice message you have shared and one that we must all consider in the future. whonu

    • WheelerWife profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Minnesota

      Hi The Dirt Farmer - I totally agree with you about Stella Young! She had a funny, approachable way of tackling tough subjects; miss her!

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image

      Jill Spencer 

      3 years ago from United States

      The Stella Young video was really good. Loved her use of the term "inspiration porn" to describe those ads that are supposed to inspire but have always made me cringe and roll my eyes. Now I better understand why!

    • WheelerWife profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Minnesota

      Hi MsDora - thank you for your nice comment and for sharing! Glad you found it helpful!

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      3 years ago from The Caribbean

      I wish I could make everyone read this article. I'm sure glad I did, and will share it. Thank you for the education on insensitivity toward people with disabilities; some of it we just didn't think through.

    • WheelerWife profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Minnesota

      Hi Barbara Kay - that's great to hear! Thanks for reading my hub :)

    • Barbara Kay profile image

      Barbara Badder 

      3 years ago from USA

      I decided I am doing a good job after reading your list. The only one I may slip-up on is saying they are an inspiration. I read this because I figured I made a lot of other blunders. Thanks for the great article.

    • WheelerWife profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Minnesota

      Hi Jama - thanks for your great comment! Yes while we have come leaps and bounds since the ADA there are still constant reminders like those you mention above of how much work there still is to do.

      Thanks to people like you who help raise awareness and keep issues like those your friend experience will help us keep making things better! :)

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 

      4 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      Having a friend with MS who RELIES ON a wheelchair to get around has been a great education in how to talk to someone who has a physical disability. However, my friend insists on being spoken to as if she isn't using that chair. The first time we went shopping after she got her motorized chair back from the repair shop and was whizzing full throttle around Walmart, it didn't bother her a bit that I was yelling "Slow down before you hurt yourself or somebody else!". Nor does it bother her one bit if she's dawdling and I tell her to "Give it some gas, Woman".

      On the other hand, having a physically challenged friend has made me aware of how many businesses are NOT in full compliance with the ADA, or how UNdisabled-friendly certain businesses are. (Too-narrow doors to a public restroom and stores with shelves too high to reach from a wheelchair being only two examples.) Also how much planning and forethought has to go into an otherwise-simple trip to the grocery store or a restaurant.

      Despite the ADA, parking is still a major problem when many spaces are taken by non-disabled people who've borrowed a vehicle with a disabled license plate or hangtag. Or people who park in the striped zone next to a disabled space, seemingly unaware that the stripes are there to ensure a lift can be lowered. I've actually gotten out and made such people aware of what the stripes are for, and shamed most of them into parking elsewhere! (Mentioning the $100 fine they could get if I were a police officer helps.)

      Having a friend with MS did make me aware of certain features in my supposedly disabled-friendly duplex that don't comply. It has ramps outside and hand rails inside, etc, meaning my friend would have no problem getting from her vehicle to my front door by herself IF the builders had gone the extra mile and raised the end of the sidewalk at the edge of the porch just THREE inches. My friend would still have to have someone else tip her chair and give it a good heave-ho onto the porch.

      Upped and shared. ;D

    • WheelerWife profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Minnesota

      Thanks, Rebecca! Yes, I love Stella's Ted Talk - she is really great at helping the audience visualize what life is like for people with disabilities and a great advocate for the community. Glad you liked the article!

    • WheelerWife profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Minnesota

      Thanks for commenting, Penny!

    • Rebeccasutton profile image

      Rebecca Sutton 

      4 years ago from Rock Hill, SC

      I saw Stella's video via facebook the other day, I was floored! She put into words ,what I was trying to think. Very interesting article. Thanks!

    • Penny Johnson profile image

      penny Johnson 

      4 years ago from Chicago,Illinois

      am in wheelchair hear so just letting you know am open anyone can ask me anything so just let you know about this


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