Describing Disability: If You Use These Terms, Think Again

These are some descriptions that regularly come up in my Google feed:


“Cerebral palsy sufferer”

“She suffers from Down syndrome”

“Cerebral palsy victim”

Before I had a kid with special needs, I would have read right over the words. Now that I have Max, who has cerebral palsy, they make me cringe. Words like “victim” and “sufferer” depict disability in a negative way, making it seem tragic for a person to have them. These are words that make you feel sorry for kids like my son, which is a shame because what he needs is parity, not pity.

I have gotten flack for speaking out against the word “retard,” a word that’s become a slur. I am sure people will say I’m being uptight and overly p.c., too, for pointing out how this wording victimizes those with disabilities. But words matter, especially when kids grow up hearing adults use them. Words shape our perceptions of people with disabilities, and how welcome we make them feel in this world.

The other day, a guy emailed me about a group he’s involved with that pairs athletes with disabilities and ones without them (described as “able-bodied”) for endurance events. I pointed out to him that able-bodied is a disparaging choice of words. His response was to reassure me that even though the wording may “appear as a negative” they meant nothing but “the most positive things” for all involved. I had no question about that—I just didn’t understand what the big deal is to change the wording.

My son, and kids like him, could use all the positive reinforcement they can get in this world. At times, it’s hard enough for them to fit in. I think I speak for many parents when I say I’d sure appreciate people—especially the media—using non-loaded wording to describe disabilities.

Instead of “he suffers from cerebral palsy” or “he’s a cerebral palsy sufferer,”  just say “he has cerebral palsy.”

Instead of “wheelchair bound,” try “wheelchair user.”

Instead of “able-bodied” or “normal” go with “non-disabled person.”

See? It’s not that hard, right?

Think about it.


From my other blog:

Those little big-deal accomplishments

How much do therapies cost for your chip with special needs?

Max is driving and maybe someday, for real

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  1. [...] between simple communication and offensive communication when discussing people with special needs. One parent speaks out about the terms commonly used (such as wheelchair bound) and the better alternatives (wheelchair [...]