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Diversity Leaders: 6 Things NEVER to Say About Disabilities

How to Promote Inclusion: Things Not To Say

“The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” —Mark Twain

As diversity leaders, we understand that disability is just another kind of difference, like culture, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. We recognize that diversity is a valuable source of insight and adaptability, generating better business ideas and high-quality service. Differing abilities are a part of that healthy diversity. It’s our business to promote inclusiveness throughout our organizations and to advocate for policies and programs that support it.

In building an inclusive culture, we’re on the front lines and need to be visibly living our organizations’ values every day. It’s important that we set the tone not only in what we do and say, but how we say it—in formal messaging as well as everyday conversation. This is where even diversity leaders can get stuck.

Sometimes inclusive language can seem a bit cumbersome, but with a few simple changes each of us can make a significant difference—helping to promote an inclusive culture while setting an example both inside and outside our organizations.

Here are six ways never to talk about disabilities:

1.     Never say “a disabled person” or “the disabled.” Say a person or people “with disabilities.”
Put the person first. A disability is what someone has, not what someone is. For instance, “mentally ill” is less respectful than “person with mental-health issues.” “Retarded” is never an appropriate term. Say “intellectual disabilities” or “cognitive disabilities.”

2.     Never use the term “handicapped parking.” Use “accessible parking” instead.
Handicapped parking is still in use (e.g., when referring to parking placards), though the word “handicapped” is offensive and has been virtually eliminated in most other contexts. Remove it from your organization’s vocabulary completely by using the term “accessible parking.” (It’s also more accurate, as accessible describes the parking and handicapped does not.)

3.     Never use the term “impaired.” Use terms such as “low vision,” “hard of hearing” or “uses a wheelchair” instead.
Though it may be used in legal contexts, the word “impaired” can be offensive, as it implies damage. Many people with disabilities do not see themselves as damaged, but simply as different.

4.     Never say “hidden” disabilities. Say “non-visible” or “non-apparent.”Many disabilities are not apparent, such as serious illnesses or chronic health conditions, sensory limitations, or mental-health and learning disabilities. When referring to these disabilities, avoid using hidden, as it has negative connotations, implying purposeful concealment or shame.

5.     Whenever possible, don’t say “accommodations.” Say “adjustments” or “modifications.”This can be tricky, as accommodation has a specific legal meaning and must be used in certain contexts, like policy or government communications. However, accommodation suggests doing a favor for the person who has a disability. An accommodation is a workplace or work-process modification made to enable an employee to be more productive. It is necessary and not a preference or privilege. The terms adjustment and modification capture this idea without suggesting a favor or special treatment, so are preferable whenever specific legal terminology is not required.

6.     Never use victim or hero language; describe situations in a straightforward way.
Don’t use language that portrays people with disabilities as victims, such as “suffers from,” “challenged by,” or “struggles with.” Say “someone who uses a wheelchair” or “wheelchair user,” not “wheelchair-bound” or “confined to a wheelchair.” On the flip side, don’t use heroic language when people with disabilities complete everyday tasks and responsibilities. People with disabilities don’t see themselves as inspiring simply because they’re going about their daily lives. We all have challenges—working around those challenges is not heroic, it’s just human.

What Terminology Should I Use?

It’s worth noting that even in the disability community (yes, that is how advocates for inclusion of people with disabilities refer to ourselves), different people are comfortable with different terminology. Some are fine with the descriptor “disabled,” which is in common use in the United Kingdom. Others may freely use “impaired.” However, as diversity leaders, it is our job to promote behaviors that make all people feel valued and included. Knowing that some people are offended by these terms, I feel strongly that the most inclusive course is to avoid them and adopt a vocabulary that feels respectful to everyone.

As champions of diversity, we have the opportunity—and the responsibility—to set standards for how our people, organizations and society speak and think about people with disabilities. By shifting our language, we can help shift perceptions and promote the culture of inclusion that is the backbone of healthy diversity in all aspects of life.

–Lori GoldenErnst & Young AccessAbilitiesTM Leader 

Golden leads Ernst & Young’s internal initiatives in the Americas to create an enabling environment and inclusive culture for people working with disabilities. She works with Ernst & Young  AccessAbilitiesTM, the firm’s disabilities-focused Professional Network; consults on work adjustments and career development; drives efforts to enhance ergonomics and accessibility in offices, communications, meetings, trainings and technology; and educates Ernst & Young’s people on disabilities-related issues.

*The views and opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of Ernst & Young. This article features contributed content and has not been fact-checked or copy-edited by DiversityInc.



  • I am sorry, I don’t know where you are getting your information, but Accommodation is the legal term and must be used. Modification sounds like a favour as does adjustments.

    I also don’t agree with not using “hidden”. I have a hidden disability and I do not take offence to that word. “non-visible” is just another take on an over used politically correct world. Besides, I do not think that non-visible is plain language and those suffering from hidden disabilities such as brain injury may not understand what you are saying.

    Sorry to disagree, but sometimes we go to far with political correctness.

    • I too believe we have become overly sensitive to the political correctness. I do believe in the people first language: I am a “person” with multiple sclerosis, I have a “son” with down syndrome. But even among some of us who have MS, we jokingly call ourselves MS’ers. Yeah, I would be offended if a non-ms’er called me an ms’er. But whether it’s “modifications”, “accomodations”, “adjustments”, it doesn’t really matter, does it? They’re synonyms as far as I’m concerned. I park in “handicapped” parking. My “handicap” is “hidden” (except I limp a little). If you called my son “retarded” I might be offended. I think most people know that word is not politically correct. But let’s relax a little. Pretty soon, saying someone has a disability will be politically incorrect.

      • Luke Visconti

        I’m sorry, but your comment is silly. You can’t have progress without the difficulty of changing people’s behavior. The only people who use the phrase “politically correct” are ignoramuses. They feel stress from change. In the case of reserved parking spots for people with limited mobility, or inclusion/mainstreaming of people with disabilities of every kind, including Down’s, the changes in our society over the past 40 years are amazing—and we¹re still making progress. Change bothers people, but you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

        • I find it completely unbelievable that someone who promotes positive diversity and is actually a CEO of DiversityInc would call anyone an ignoramous.

          You wrote an article about disability and wording regarding disabilities then someone who actually lives with a disability themselves and has family members who live with disabilities disagrees with your argument. First you say their comment is silly then go on to undermine their point even more by calling them ignoramouses.

          As someone who was born with a disability and has therefore lived with one her whole life I dislike the fact that people discuss the correctness of phrasing like you have as it creates the idea that the word DISABILITY itself is a dirty word. I’m perfectly ok describing myself as having a disability, I’m perfectly ok to discuss accomodations that need to be made to make my life easier, it won’t change my situation to say I need to make modifications instead, changes still need to be made no matter what you call them.

          Most of the terms you have suggested we use are just synonyms of already existing terms and it feels petty and consecending to suggest we use them instead. You’re being offended on behalf of someone who doesn’t necessarily feel offended.

          • Luke Visconti

            Please. The poster described all the positive benefits of years of work around the issue of people with disabilities as it concerned her and her son, and then said “let’s relax a little.” People with disabilities have the highest unemployment of any college-educated group—and most employees do not disclose disabilities for fear of retribution. Let’s “relax a little” when the numbers approach the mean. And I stand by my opinion that the phrase “politically correct” is invoked by ignoramuses nearly 100 percent of the time. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

        • bruce fett

          Good comment. And context matters. People can tell when you are trying to be kind, helpful, friendly and inclusive. My suggestion would be that one can change one’s attitude and heart and the words will follow. That object you are describing is actually a person with whom you are hopefully having a conversation with.

  • I agree with Monica. In saying “hidden disability” because its the disability itself that results in symptoms being hidden, not the person with the disability who is not deliberately hiding the disability.
    Also, accommodation, modification and adjustment all should be used without worry. In the trainings we do with businesses about disability-aware interaction, all three terms have relevance for interacting with people who have, and who don’t have disabilities.

  • A person affiliated with this site is calling a comment that expresses a different opinion “silly”? Seems a bit unprofessional, and ironic considering this site includes the word ‘diversity’ in its title.

    • Luke Visconti

      Diversity does not imply a lack of standards. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • I don’t “call someone ‘disabled’, ‘handicapped’, or ‘with disabilities’ “- I call them by whatever moniker by which they have invited me to address them- anything else is condescending,demeaning and many different communities take issue with such attitudes. I try to treat people how I would like to be treated. If they want to address any specific issues they have- that is purely up to them. Many communities have their own ‘subcultural rules’. -don;t assume you know what they are- again, ASK.
    Try the the way your Mom or Grandmother taught you; ASK someone how they wish to be addressed. One of the most insulting things you can do is turn to a thrid party and ask them about the other person thereby demeaning and diminishing them.

  • Disabed people is growing in popularity instead of person with a disability. As a DISABLED PERSON (yes I identify that way) I feel it better recognizes that an ignorant society adds barriers to those with ddisabilities through their refusal to give people public space. Disabled people is also the pc term most commonly used in English speaking Europe so what is preferred is also geographical. I think people’s own preferences should be respected so if an individual prefers people first language, that should be respected but to say that anything but people first language should never be used it utterly rediculous because it does not allow for a nuanced understanding of disability and how people feel about those identities.

  • Candy de la Garrigue

    This is without a doubt the most ignorant piece of crap I have ever had the displeasure of reading. I am HANDICAPPED. You will make ACCOMMODATIONS for my dog and my wheelchair, as needed.I will park in a HANDICAPPED space. You will not use ridiculous terms like “challenged” “hidden”, or any other ridiculous PC terminology. You people have lost your minds.I’m aware that my body is broken (hence the dog and chair). However, my brain works just fine,and so do my ears. I’m not some little tulip who is going to cry because you made some comment about the dog, the chair, or the fact that I have a handicapped placard.

    • Luke Visconti

      I’m more like you. I need a cane and the kind I use comes in sets of two; the folks delivering it make some useful suggestions about what to do with the second one. I said I’ll need two because sooner or later someone was going to do or say something that would compel me to put my cane up that person’s behind.

      But this story requires a broader perspective. Not everyone is as hardy as you or me. But as to what you call me or anyone? As my good friend Jim Sinocchi said when he was asked for his perspective as a quadriplegic: “Call me Jim.” Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • I am in charge of the Public Services floor of the Chattanooga Public Library. Among other things, we provide 27 public computers where our library customers can access the Internet. We have one computer that we call the “Handicapped” computer. It’s main feature is a large easy-to-read keyboard. It has been suggested that we rename this computer. I cannot determine what might be a more appropriate/descriptive name, however. I have a “handicap” myself but grew up in the age in which that term was widely used and accepted. I have looked online and have seen: “Computer With Adaptive Technology.” That seems a little long to me. If we are going to change the name I need something that my staff will remember and can easily say to the public. Any suggestions?

  • One of my staff suggested: Accessibility Computer
    Any other suggestions/comments?

  • I think that we are going to go with “Enhanced” and add ZoomText to the computer.

  • Voice of Reason

    After reading this article and the many follow up comments, I must insist that all of the people on planet Earth refer to me as a “guy who is white”, or a “guy who is bald” as I find it demeaning to place my lack of melanin or follicles ahead of the fact that I am a guy. Oh wait, you should all refer to me as a “Human who is a guy who is white (or bald)” as it stresses the fact that…. OK, what you are now thinking is that you should all refer to me as an “ass who is a Jack”. I think the point to drive home here is that too many people abuse the hadicapped plackard.

    • Luke Visconti

      Like Ronald Reagan’s concocted and fictional “welfare queen.” The abuser of the handicap placard is a chimera. I have a handicap hang tag and can tell you that I have become far more sensitive to the paucity of spots in which to use it. I have not seen it abused, not once. And what if 1 percent did abuse it? Cancel the program? I do hear you about the lingual gymnastics. As Jim Sinocchi illustrated, just call me Luke. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • Luke,
    Calling other people names because they don’t agree with you.

    • Luke Visconti

      Please find another website if you find me “shameless.” Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

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