Affirming Disability Language & Considerations

The language a society uses to refer to individuals and communities shapes its beliefs and ideas about them. By using terms and phrases which affirm and empower students with disabilities, we can create a campus culture that moves towards affirmation, equity, and autonomy.

Below are some steps to help students with disabilities feel included, supported, and empowered through language and mindful consideration.

Guidelines for Speaking about Disabilities

  • Only refer to an individual’s disability when it is relevant and appropriate.

  • Don't use "normal" to describe people who don't have disabilities. It is better to say "people without disabilities" or "typical," if necessary to make comparisons.

  • Use the term "accessible" rather than "disabled" or "handicapped" when speaking about accommodations such as "accessible parking" vs. "handicapped parking."

  • Don't use terms such as "handicapped," "differently-abled," "impaired," "cripple," or "special needs," which can be harmful, able-ist, and oppressive.

  • Avoid negative connotations or descriptions when speaking about individuals with disabilities such as "suffers from …", or "a victim of … ." These terms invoke feelings of pity and suffering and don't accurately describe the experience of an individual with disabilities.

  • Avoid referring to an individual with disabilities as "inspirational," "brave," or "special." While many might find this to be a compliment, it reads as insulting and patronizing, and ultimately fails to account for the experiences of those with disabilities.

  • In general, be mindful of language and open to change. Ask yourself, "Is the terminology that I am using empowering or dismissive?"

Considerations for Specific Disabilities

Blindness or Low Vision

  • Use the term blind or low vision. Avoid "vision-impaired."

  • When greeting or meeting a person who is blind, indicate your presence verbally, identify yourself by name, and speak in a normal tone. If others are with you, identify them as well (i.e. "Mariana is on my left.")

  • Identify yourself before making any physical contact with the individual.

  • If a person has a guide dog, walk on the opposite side of the animal. Do not touch the animal, as the dog is working and contact could be distracting.

Mobility Disabilities

  • Use the term "wheelchair-user" or "uses a wheelchair." Avoid the terms "wheelchair-bound" or "confined to a wheelchair."

  • Be aware that an individual’s wheelchair is a part of the individual's body space. Do not stand too close, as this could block the individual's movement. Avoid touching an individual’s wheelchair unless given permission to do so.

  • Speak to the person in the wheelchair directly. If you know it will be a longer conversation, sit down at their eye level if possible.

  • It’s appropriate to use expressions like "let's go for a walk" when speaking to an individual who uses a wheelchair. They likely express the idea of moving along in exactly the same way.

  • Offer assistance at appropriate times or if invited to do so.

Deaf/Hard of Hearing

Some deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals do not identify as having a disability. They consider themselves members of a cultural and linguistic community. This group of people use the term Deaf with an uppercase "D" to reflect their cultural identification as someone who uses American Sign Language (ASL) and shares common Deaf culture values, rules for behavior, and traditions.

  • Be sure you have the person's attention before you begin speaking. Depending on the situation, you can get their attention by waving your hand, tapping them on the shoulder, or flickering the lights.

  • Speak slowly and distinctly, but not unnaturally. There is no need to shout.

  • It is best to not assume that all Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals are able to read lips. Work with individuals to address how to communicate most effectively with them—be it reading lips, writing things down, using a sign language interpreter, etc.

  • When using a sign language interpreter, have them sit next to you so the person you're speaking with can easily shift gaze from the interpreter to you. Address and speak directly to the Deaf individual and not the interpreter.

Mental Health Concerns

Students can experience a variety of mental health conditions, including mood disorders, personality disorders, anxiety conditions, eating disorders and psychotic disorders. You may find it difficult talking to someone with a mental health issue. We often avoid discussing mental health because of fear, stigma and simply not knowing what to say. Following are some tips:

Do not:

  • Make unhelpful or dismissive comments like ‘snap out of it’, ‘cheer up’, ‘forget about it’, ‘pull yourself together’, or ‘I’m sure it will pass’. These comments can make a person feel worse
  • Say you know how they feel if you don’t, as it invalidates their experience.
  • Use words that stigmatize, like ‘psycho’ or ‘crazy’.

Instead you should:

  • Acknowledge how the person is feeling.
  • Be sensitive, positive and encouraging.
  • Try using ‘I statements’, such as ‘I’m worried…’ or ‘I’ve noticed…’
  • Encourage them to seek help immediately if they are at risk of suicide or self-harm.


Neurodiversity is an umbrella term referring to the various and complex neurocognitive functioning of all human beings.

Neurodivergent individuals are those who have neurological differences such as but not limited to, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, and intellectual and developmental disabilities.

  • Ask how you can best relay information. Be patient and flexible.

  • Be direct in your communication.

  • For those who have dyslexia or other reading disabilities, provide verbal explanations and allow extra time for processing information.

  • For some individuals, loud music, bright lights, etc. may be distracting. Try to limit those stimuli as much as possible.

  • If an individual seems anxious or agitated, speak calmly and offer to repeat information or break things down step-by- step.

  • Be reassuring, and validate feelings and behaviors without judgment or dismissal.