Words Matter

Two young men in wheelchairs rolling through park while laughing and talking. - 6/01/2021

The way we write and speak about others helps to ensure respect in our interactions, and we are richer for it. 

In particular, terms like disabilities and disabled include a broad range of physical and mental conditions both visible and invisible. People’s perceptions of disabilities vary widely. Using care and precision when writing or speaking about disabilities and people with disabilities helps us consider the impact of specific words and the preferences of the people we talk about. Important to know are:


Avoid implying ableism which is the belief that those who don’t have a disability are superior. Ableism is a concept similar to racism, sexism and ageism in that it includes stereotypes, generalizations and demeaning views and language. It is a form of discrimination or prejudice against people with disabilities.


Avoid labeling. Do not describe an individual as having a disability unless it is clearly pertinent. For example: Merritt, who is blind and walks with the help of a guide dog, said she is pleased with the city’s walkway improvements. Not: Dan, who has paraplegia, is a fan of the Philadelphia Phillies. In general, refer to a disability only if relevant to the conversation. Avoid the term handicap for a disability or handicapped for a person.

Person-First Language

Practice person-first language. An example is: The child with autism or the child on the autism spectrum is learning new skills with the help of applied behavior analysis. Not: The autistic child is learning new skills. 

Our words matter. Terms that seem innocuous to some people can have deeply personal or offensive meanings to others. Language is important to sustaining thriving communities and work environments rich in diversity where everyone feels included and valued.