6 Things to Never Say About Disabilities

As organizations continue to prioritize and recognize the valuable contributions brought on by a diverse and inclusive workplace, they must hire people of all abilities to generate better business ideas and to serve customers in the best possible way. 

Creating an organization that values diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) goes beyond simply hiring people of different abilities, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations. The way in which leadership and other company stakeholders talk to and about these employees also matters. 

When it comes to how people talk to and about people with disabilities, it’s not always done in the most inclusive way. When having conversations with employees with disabilities, make sure you are being respectful and treating the person with dignity by avoiding these six things:

1. Never say “a disabled person” or “the disabled” or “handicapped.” Say “a person with a disability.”

A disability is not what someone is, but what someone has, which is why it is important to put the person first, not their disability. The same goes for a person with mental health issues: Never refer to them as “mentally ill.” It is also inappropriate to say someone is “retarded.” Say “ cognitive disability” or “intellectual disability.” Here are some other terms to avoid based on the person’s disability:

  • Do not say “differently abled” or “special needs.” Instead, say “disability” or “a person with a disability.”
  • Never refer to someone as “crippled” or “a cripple.” Say, “a person with a physical disability” or a “person with a developmental disability.”

Never to people without disabilities as “normal,” as it could imply people with disabilities are “abnormal.” Always say “a person without a disability.”

2. Never use the term “handicapped parking.” Instead, say “accessible parking.”

Using a version of the word “accessible” should almost always be used in place of “handicapped,” especially when referring to a place with accommodations for people with disabilities. It is also important to never say someone is “wheelchair bound.” Instead, say “a person who uses a wheelchair.”

3. Never say someone is “impaired.” Say “a person who is blind” or “a person with vision impairment.”

When referring to someone who has a vision impairment, refer to the usage above. “A person with low vision” is also acceptable. When speaking about a person in the deaf community, it is only acceptable to say “a person who is deaf or hard of hearing.” If a person has no speech, do no assume they have an intellectual disability. Only refer to them as “a person who is non-verbal.”

4. Never say “epileptic.” Say “a person with epilepsy.”

In addition to saying “a person with epilepsy,” it is also important to never describe something that is happening to a person as a “fit,” “attack” or “spell.” Say that the person had a seizure, as this is the proper terminology for describing an epileptic event. It also should not be assumed that a person with a learning disability has epilepsy. According to the Epilepsy Society, 30% of people with learning disabilities have epilepsy and 15% of people with epilepsy have learning disabilities. 

5. Never say “hidden” disabilities. Say “non-visible” or “non-apparent.”

Many disabilities, such as chronic health conditions, sensory limitations or learning disabilities, are not physical disabilities and are not apparent. These disabilities should not be referred to as “hidden” disabilities. Say “non-visible” or “non-apparent.”

People with non-apparent disabilities do not always disclose that they have a disability. It is important to respect this choice as an employer. For those who do disclose their disability, it is also important to respect their choice to self-identify and not discredit them by not believing they have a disability. 

6. Never use victim or heroic language. Describe the situation in a straightforward way. 

People with disabilities should not be portrayed in ways that make them look like a victim, such as saying things such as “suffers from,” “challenged by” or “struggles with.” Remember to refer to people in some of the ways mentioned above: “a person who uses a wheelchair,” “a person who has low vision, “a person with a developmental disability.”

On the flip side, do not use heroic language to celebrate when a person with a disability completes everyday tasks and responsibilities. Everyone has challenges, and people with disabilities do not pride themselves on going about their daily lives. 

Subscribe to DiversityInc Best Practices to read “Mental Health: How to Respectfully Support Employees with Disabilities” and other related topics in our November Meeting in a Box. 


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